With the success of his quick-witted debut, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs,” fans got a rough sketch of Mercury Nashville’s Travis Denning – even if the country character was flashing a fake I.D. Then with the sleek fireball of his first Number One, “After a Few,” the joyfully untamed goodbye singalong, “ABBY,” and his Beer’s Better Cold EP, the picture started getting clearer.
But now with his sophomore studio set, Dirt Road Down, it’s coming together in high-definition.
“This was about going ‘What’s the next step?'” Denning says, describing his new six-song EP. “It’s kind of cheesy, but to me Dirt Road Down makes me feel like we’ve gone a little further down the path of who I am – which I like to think is a dirt road, for sure.”
Before 2020, that would have been a pretty short road, since for years Denning focused solely on one thing – his music. Growing up with a mix of AC/DC, Shenandoah, Metallica and Brooks & Dunn, his influences collided with an explosive stage presence to create a breakout star in modern country, acclaimed for his guitar-driven energy in a time of programmed beats. With “After a Few” Denning had some serious momentum as 2020 began, and was even headed for a major concert tour with Sam Hunt. But then the bottom dropped out.
His shows were canceled and Denning went home to Georgia, and for the first time in his adult life, had time to unwind. Time to explore the man he’d become. Time to fish and cook and reconnect the dots of a life he left behind to chase his dreams. And crucially, time to remember why he loved music in the first place. Dirt Road Down is the result, mixing Denning’s personality with a hunger for the stage and another shot of his whiskey-rocking country sound.
“It’s still kind of picking up where we left off,” Denning explains. “But honestly, that’s mixed with the start of a new chapter as well.”
Feeling validated by success, Denning wrote over 100 songs as he waited out the pandemic – and this time, followed his instincts freely. Full of energy and blazing guitar solos, clever imagery and a uniquely reverent view of small-town life, his favorites became Dirt Road Down (plus some older tunes perfect for the role), each one exploring what makes him tick.
Opening track “Call It Country” captures the essence of those rowdy, hard-rocking concerts he missed so much, while also cranking up the hell-raising, blood-pumping approach he’s made into a sonic signature. Call his sound whatever you want, Denning sings, he just calls it “country.”
“I just wanted it to be a damn teeth kicker,” he says of the track, co-written with Jessi Alexander and Chris Stevens. “I knew the second we finished it that I was cutting this song. It was the same feeling I had with ‘David Ashley Parker’ when I wrote that. It was ‘me,’ and nobody else.”
“Dirt Road Down” explores his love of a twisted, pure-country lyric, taking multiple routes to same romantic destination – and a sleek, late-night groove. “Jack and Coke” mixes the dark, buzzy flavor of his favorite cocktail with a nursery-rhyme setup for an epic heartbreaker on the rocks. And “Grew Up With a Truck” hitches feel-good country nostalgia to a diesel-powered hook, built on the floorboards of his 4×4 youth.
Each track is geared hot for the road – perfect as the road warrior saddles up with Brothers Osborne this fall – but for “I Went Fishing,” Denning gets to know the guy behind the guitar. Through an easy-going acoustic sound, and a relaxed theme of summer-country contemplation, the world slows down as he finds “healing at the end of a buzz bait hitting.”
“This one is definitely my selfish personal favorite,” he admits. “I wrote it right after the Sam Hunt tour got canceled, and I was so bummed – I mean devastated. That’s when I thought about the title again, and it was like ‘I don’t think I fish to catch fish, really. It’s more about trying to find a little piece of mind, and get away from it all.'”
The project ends with the chart-rising single, “ABBY,” pulling all the threads of Denning’s Southern charm together. An uptempo party rocker with a playful sense of humor, the track has become an unlikely show closer as it climbs the Billboard ladder– but its success doesn’t surprise Denning. Just like Dirt Road Down, it encapsulates everything he loves about country music, and life.
“That song feels like it could be the cornerstone of my career – forever,” he says with pride. “It’s a great story, it’s funny, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and people just relate to it.”
That formula is part of what has made Denning stand out from the start, and another piece of the puzzle revealed on Dirt Road Down. From the guitar-slinging country rocker who misses the chaos of the stage, to the small town Georgia boy who secretly craves a little peace and quiet, Dirt Road Down will take fans there. But who knows where the road ends.
“My biggest thing is I hope they get a piece of me they were expecting,” he says. “And I hope they get a piece of me that they weren’t, too.”