One of the singers at the “Kickin' It Loose” country concert Saturday, March 30 in Smyrna is celebrating a string of firsts, including an endorsement by Dolly Parton

One of the singers at the “Kickin’ It Loose” country music concert Saturday, March 30 in Smyrna is celebrating a string of firsts, including an endorsement by Dolly Parton.

Jenny Tolman, a native of Nashville, will be performing in Delaware for the first time at the show which features headliner Adam Wakefield, all to benefit Citizens' Hose Company, Smyrna's volunteer fire company.

Tolman’s hit “Rock & Roll to My Country Soul” went to #1 on Country Music Television’s 12 Pack Countdown and was named one of the “10 Best Country and Americana Songs of the Week” by Rolling Stone on the website rollingstone.com Aug. 3.

But she said the personal first which means the most to her was finding out that her song “My Welcome Mat” had been selected by Dolly Parton on Parton’s Apple Music playlist, “What Would Dolly Do?”

“I was so excited, I screamed,” said Tolman. “I totally nerded out and dressed up like her and posted a photo of myself singing.”

Tolman said Parton has been a cherished role model.

“I study her interviews on YouTube,” said Tolman. “How she communicates with people is so unique. When people try to trip her up with a question, she has a comeback for everything or she cracks a joke. She’s so good at making people feel loved and respected.”

Growing up in Nashville

Tolman said her first musical influence was her father who sang in a country band in the 1980s called “The Indian River Boys.”

“He sang backup on Garth Brooks’ ‘No Fences’ album,” said Tolman. “He had a good run, but now he’s switched to the business side.”

While she always remembers being involved with music while growing up, she didn’t plan to be a professional singer at first.

“I used to write short stories, and so I thought maybe I’d be an author,” Tolman said.

She learned how to play piano by ear. She played flute in her high school band, and she sang and danced in her high school musical “Footloose.”

“Then when I got a guitar for my 16th birthday, it was a lightbulb moment,” she said. “I started to think that maybe I can put this all together – the writing, the playing, the singing – and have everything I love all wrapped up in one.”

She said she often had difficulty in school focusing on the academic lessons.

“I’ve found that a lot of creative people find it hard to concentrate in a typical school setting,” Tolman said. “Your mind goes to what you could be doing with music, singing, writing. It was difficult to concentrate on what the teacher wanted us to do.”

She didn’t go through the standard four years of high school.

“I had a weird high school experience. I switched high schools after my freshman year, then after my sophomore year, I went to home school and graduated a year early,” she explained.

Then she started pursuing her music career full time.

“I never really had a ‘day job,’” she said. “Singing is the only thing I’ve ever done professionally. I babysat on the side the first few years, but that’s about it.”

Performing and writing

Now 23, her budding career has already featured opening for legendary group “Alabama” at the Big E, a multi-day fair in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“I also got to open for Lee Ann Womack who is one of my all-time heroes,” said Tolman. “I love her voice.”

She just finished her first official tour with Adam Hood, a singer and songwriter who’s written for artists like Miranda Lambert.

Now she’s putting the finishing touches on her first album, “There Goes the Neighborhood,” which will be released this summer. She said she wanted to create a true album – a throwback to the way people used to listen to music.

“I know it’s a singles world. I understand that, but it was lot of fun to create an entire album with an overall concept,” Tolman said. “I’ve created an imaginary town, with all these characters and different narratives. I get to step into different roles in each song.”

The album features a mix of fiddle and steel guitar with a variety of instruments including clarinet and strings.

“There’s a ton of traditional country because that’s where my heart is, but it’s also like nothing you’ve ever heard before,” she said. “It’s a cool sonic journey.”

She wrote or co-wrote every song on the album, but said she doesn’t have a formula for how to write a song.

“It’s always different. Sometimes it starts with a line that’s funny or quirky or clever,” she said. “Sometimes a melody comes to me, and I sing into a voice memo so I’ll remember it and think of words to fit the melody.”

“I love writing songs that kind of shock you, that start off making you think one thing and then surprising you,” said Tolman. “I think if I can surprise people like that and make them laugh, it’ll make them comfortable and then they’ll be more likely to listen and I’ll sprinkle in my little Jenny-isms.”

She said she’s particularly proud of her song, “My Welcome Mat,” the Dolly Parton pick, co-written with John Goodwin and Dave Brainard, the producer of her album.

“I think right now is the perfect time to put this message out there, that it doesn’t matter if we’re different, we just need to love each other,” Tolman said. “The lyrics all describe true friends of mine. They’re all different and I love them all. I wanted to say it’s OK to be different and have different viewpoints, as long as you’re not harming someone else.”

Another favorite is “Something to Complain About,” co-written with Aaron Raitiere, that was inspired by one of Tolman’s teachers several years ago.

“She told me about her and her husband trying to have baby for 10 years, going through in vitro and then having miscarriages,” said Tolman. “She shared with me that when she’d hear mothers complaining about how difficult their baby was being and how they’ve gotten no sleep, she would think, ‘I wish I had something like that to complain about.’”

“The song is about noticing we all have different reasons to be grateful and that usually there’s always going to be somebody less fortunate who wishes they had what you have,” said Tolman.

And the story has a happy ending. Her former teacher just gave birth.

“I was so happy for her,” said Tolman. “It’s totally come full circle.”

She said the words of the song fit right in with the idea she had to interact with fans on social media.

“I’m super into gratitude, and one of the things I do is ‘Jenny’s Joy Jar.’ I post a picture of something I’m grateful for and invite fans to say what they’re grateful for,” said Tolman. “When the jar is full of comments, I pick one out on live video and the fan gets to pick a cover song that I record and post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.”

“It’s a way to keep my fans engaged in a positive way, so it’s not always about me. I’m not the ‘selfie’ kind of girl,” she said. “I want to be doing whatever I can to elevate other people, not saying, ‘Look how awesome my world is.’”

She also said fans’ comments have influenced her songwriting, like in “Rock & Roll to My Country Soul.” Tolman sings, “You’re like Jimmy Page. I’m like Emmylou,” referring to Jimmy Page of the rock band Led Zeppelin and country star Emmylou Harris.

Before writing the song, Tolman knew who Emmylou Harris was, but “I never really dug into her history and all of her albums.”

Then after concerts, some fans would tell Tolman, “You remind me of Emmylou Harris.”

“When it kept happening, I said, ‘I should check into this,’” said Tolman. “Now I’m such a huge fan. She’s definitely been an inspiration.”

Her Smyrna show

For her concert in Smyrna, Tolman’s planning to sing a variety of songs in a one-hour set with a band that includes acoustic and electric guitars, bass and drums.

“This is my Delaware debut and I’m so excited,” said Tolman. “I love touring, getting out and meeting people face to face and hearing what song is their favorite. That’s the most genuine connection.”

She’s also a little star-struck herself.

“I’ve never met Adam Wakefield before. That’s another thing I’m excited about,” she said.