Travis Denning made his entrance into Country Music through a memorable story about a fake I.D. with his debut single “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs.” Since then, he’s been no stranger to Country radio with songs like “Tank Of Gas And A Radio Song” and his No. 1 hit “After A Few.” Denning is back with his most personal collection of work yet, as he releases his new EP Dirt Road Down.
When it comes to the title track, Denning expertly weaves a seemingly simple phrase into many meanings as he tells an intricate story of a lost love. “I think everyone initially sees it and thinks ‘Oh cool, another dirt road song,’ but really it’s more about this kind of looking back, this nostalgic thing… I just love those kind of songs that take you back or they paint a picture of somebody kind of looking back.” While the song “Dirt Road Down” is all about reflecting on the past, for Denning, this EP is all about what lies ahead.
“Everybody talks about your path. They talk about your career, the road you’re on, and all this stuff. The more I kept hearing that, like the next step of my path, another cornerstone, I was like ‘I hope my path is a damn dirt road. I hope it’s a backroad because that’d be way cooler than anything else,’” says Denning in an interview with Sounds Like Nashville. “It was funny and cheesy and whatever, but the more I thought about it, I mean it really is. It’s just another step down this kind of dirt road path of my life and my career. Then it just all of a sudden made sense to encompass it there with that angle as well and I just knew that it had to be the [album] title.”
Denning shows off his songwriting prowess and knack for well-crafted stories throughout the EP, giving listeners an honest glimpse into his life, as he’s developed both personally and as an artist over the past few years.
“I think the sound of the EP is still me, but I do think this go around I just was a little less afraid to let the influences seep through a little harder,” he shares. “Not that the first EP I wasn’t honest with myself or I didn’t make the music I want to make, but you know the reality is I grew up loving heavy metal and I grew up loving hard rock and pop and things like that. I think luckily this genre’s in a place right now where you’re really freed up to do what you want to do and be who you want to be. Somebody’s gonna like it, somebody’s gonna listen to it and if they don’t at the end of the day you did what you’re supposed to do as an artist, and you can sleep at night knowing that. So, for me I wanted it to be a little heavier, you know ‘Call It Country’ obviously and I think ‘Grew Up With A Truck’ kind of hits pretty hard and things like that. I also wanted to write about the things I love like fishing and what it means to me, so the sound is definitely still me, I just think it’s another step closer into exactly what’s going on in my head and in my heart when it comes to music.”
Denning doesn’t shy away from letting his musical influences outside of the Country genre in “Call It Country,” instead he embraces them wholeheartedly. Throughout the writing process with co-writers Jessi Alexander and Chris Stevens, he was constantly thinking of how it would be performed live. He was in the headspace of creating something Country but with the sound of his heavy metal heroes leading the charge “I just want this thing to sound like Pantera doing a Country song or Metallica cutting one,” he shares.
Like many artists, Denning found himself unexpectedly off the road over the past year, forced to slow down and experience life at a different pace. Disappointed over not being able to tour with Sam Hunt and trying to process everything going on in the world, he took to the water to find answers and peace through the best way he knows how: fishing.
“…I think my favorite quote of all time is that ‘Men spend their whole life fishing just to find out it’s not about catching fish.’ And it’s the total truth,” he shares. “I mean, it’s my solace, it’s my peace, it’s my place I go just to literally shut it off as the song [‘I Went Fishin’’] says and I’m always happy if I’m on the water and I just like being where fish live,” he says with a laugh. “It seems so funny but whether it’s the beach or the bay, the lake, the river, that was how I turned it off. That was how I got away from the fact that we weren’t going to be on the road. It’s how I got away from the fact that the world just was up in arms, just totally just crazy and yeah, that’s just totally my story and the song was written truly for people who’ve been through that their whole lives. You know whether it’s losing your first dog or first love or losing a parent or whatever it is, everybody’s got their fishing. It doesn’t have to be fishing. It might be running, working out, it might be sports, it might be anything but for me it’s fishing and I know for a lot of people it is.”
When it comes to songwriting, Denning’s wisdom is far beyond his years, which is evident in the poignant song “Grew Up With A Truck.” In a time where there are typically a handful of writers on each song on the charts, it’s telling of his talent that Denning penned this special song completely on his own.
“I spent a lot of time with this song probably like the way my songwriting heroes did, people like Neil Young and Springsteen and Gregg Allman. Like they didn’t go to a 10:30 write and write ‘til 3 o’clock and get a song done and demo and have it done,” he explains. “They picked and peeled at songs as they were inspired. If they weren’t inspired or motivated, they didn’t mess with it, you know? They really were methodical and spent their time and so for me, I did it with that. I didn’t really ever dedicate time to writing it, it was just sitting I’d be at home and I’d finally think of some lyrics and I’d write them down and record a verse, record a chorus and probably wrote the song over the course of like a week and a half and I frickin’ loved it. It was awesome, like there was no stress involved. Not to say that there’s stress involved in co-writing. I love co-writing. I think after doing that and the song coming out the way it did, I’m a huge fan of it and I feel like it fits.”
The song is a nostalgic look at youth and the significant moment of freedom that comes with getting those precious first set of keys, even if they aren’t to a truck.
“So my first truck that was like officially mine, like ‘Okay, this is yours,’ I got when I was 20 years old. I don’t think my parents trusted me with a truck when I was 16,” says Denning. “I had a car, but my dad always had one [a truck]. My grandfather had a ’87 4Runner, I remember early on. Obviously a 4Runner’s not a truck but I remember my grandfather taking me on backroads when I was 13 years old and putting me in the front seat and just saying ‘Alright, you’re going to start learning.’ He would teach me how to drive, drive slowly, hit the brakes. And then my dad, I can remember having a bench seat, red F-150, then he had an Avalanche and a Silverado and all these things growing up. I don’t know, I always romanticize, I love that moment of my life. Turning sixteen, getting your first set of keys and whether it’s a truck or a car or a daggum scooter, it doesn’t matter. That moment in your life is one of the coolest, most exciting times ‘cause it’s really your first taste of freedom, you’re just thinking, ‘I can go anywhere I want on this tank of gas’… I love thinking back to those days and they’re definitely not the best days of my life. I just love that feeling, I vividly remember those moments. I remember borrowing my dad’s truck to pick up a girl and it was way better than going in a Pontiac G6 to her house…,” he remembers with a laugh.
What sounds like a rowdy drinking song about his favorite cocktail, “Jack And Coke” uses a clever play on words to tell of love lost between characters Jack and Jill, until all that’s left is Jack and Coke. Written in 2016 with CJ Solar and Chris Stevens, the song has always been an important one for Denning and he’s happy it’s finally found its home on this Dirt Road Down. “For me, I just love that song so much. It’s one of my favorites. It was one of the first songs I wrote that I felt like was really me. I was like ‘This is what I want to do.’ The whole sound, the story, the melodies, everything felt like me as an artist…”
While this EP is introspective and reveals the heart and history of Denning, it culminates with fan favorite, tongue-in-cheek song “ABBY.”
“…It’s just still got such a life and it’s honestly just grown, it’s only gotten bigger,” he says of the song that appeared on his first EP Beer’s Better Cold. “It just felt like a cool little way just to kind of button it up right there at the end and go ‘Hey, I still like to have fun. I don’t take my life too seriously, here’s ‘ABBY’…”
“I think the thing I’m most excited about is to share the stage with some guys who are kinda cut from the same musical cloth as I am,” says Denning. “I mean me and John, we definitely have a lot in common guitar wise and our influences are very similar and T.J.’s just stone-cold Country. I mean just an amazing voice and an awesome guy. Their band is incredible. They are definitely huge motivators to be just the best music you can be onstage in the time you have. So I’m just really excited for that I think, just leaning into the musical side of things a little harder, ‘cause this crowd definitely expects it.”