Inspiration often springs from an unlikely source, and for Mercury Nashville’s Travis Denning, attending hair-metal icons Mötley Crüe’s show as a kid sparked a musical fire. Honing his musicianship and songwriting chops from that point on, Denning broke into country with a double shot of radio-ready singles – and now he’s tapping raw, live-show magnetism for his debut EP, Beer’s Better Cold, available May 15.
“I want people to come away thinking ‘Who in the hell was that?’” he says of his first major label package. “And ‘Where can I hear more?’”
Now 27 with a lifetime of shows on his tab, Denning counts himself a student of country crooners and hard rockers alike, boldly unafraid of his wilder impulses. He was born into a generation without sonic borders, and grew up loving everything from The Allman Brothers Band to Metallica, Pantera and Outkast.
A native of Warner Robins, Georgia, he’s a natural guitar slinger and gifted live performer, who often injects his humor into stage shows and singles alike. Denning first picked up a guitar in grade school, and by the age of 16 was turning heads at the front of a rowdy bar band every weekend. Still, he put off moving to Nashville until he was 21, quickly establishing his songwriting cred with cuts by Jason Aldean, Justin Moore and Chase Rice when he did. In 2020 Denning tallied his first Top 25 hit as a writer with Michael Ray’s reflective “Her World or Mine,” but the spotlight has always called his name.
Signing his record deal at 25, the Top 40 hit “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” introduced him as a smirking tunesmith, while “After a Few” showed a darker, sleeker side of his artistic brew – rocketing into country radio’s Top 20 and pointing toward the next round.
“I’ve really embraced the heavier side of who I am – and this is just an early taste,” he says of his high-gravity EP. “But the anchor that hooked me and pulled me to country was always the songwriting. You can do all kinds of cool stuff in the studio nowadays … but you’re not even gonna be in there without a great song.”
Six diverse tracks (five of which Denning co-wrote) were produced by Jeremy Stover with a mind toward Denning’s live show, itself a full-throttle affair inspired by his 12-year-old baptism at the rock alter of a Mötley Crüe concert. “I was like ‘Yeah, I want to do that … forever,’” he says.
“We wanted the core of these songs to sound like a dad-gum rock band,” Denning goes on, tapping into the spirit of a show he’s already taken on the road with LANCO, Dustin Lynch and more – and soon will again on Sam Hunt’s Southside Summer Tour. “I wanted it to be guitar, bass and drums, and there was something cool about starting there. It really anchored the songs on this power trio, in-your-face thing, and that was such a key-switch in my head. It was like ‘Alright, this is it.’”
The howling “After a Few” gave fans their first taste – a sleek, jet-black anthem Denning infused with a “hypnotic Tom Petty” vibe, all about a volatile couple who’s passion could erupt at any moment. “I just loved the image I saw in my head – it was kinda scary and cautious, but still sexy,” Denning says of the single, co-written with Kelly Archer and Justin Weaver.
At the other end of the spectrum stands the infectious “ABBY,” which shows off Denning’s boisterous sense of humor in offbeat, better-without-you style. An abbreviation for “any body but you,” it’s the only outside cut on Beer’s Better Cold, but reveals just as much of who the rising star’s personality.
“I love songs like that,” he says. “Ones you can sing at [Nashville’s songwriter club] The Bluebird Cafe and make people laugh and smile … and come to think of it, that’s what my first single ‘David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs’ was all about.”
Opening track “Where That Beer’s Been” puts listeners in the mood to let loose, mixing modern sonics with fat guitar riffs and a classic theme, while “Tank of Gas and a Radio Song” captures the teenaged freedom of having the world at your fingertips. And with “Beer’s Better Cold,” Denning continues a proud country tradition – keeping listeners in the dark until the last line of the chorus. A cans-in-the-air romper with an intoxicating twist, it’s an anthem to the idea that some things are obvious, even if we don’t want to admit it. “I love that this song is not actually about beer,” he explains. “Sometimes you have to read the writing on the wall.”
Meanwhile, closing tune “Sittin’ By a Fire” shows a different side of this hard-rocking star on the rise. Co-written with Stover and perennial chart topper Rhett Akins, it’s a sweet-hearted singalong about a guy who’s invited to a bonfire party – but would rather stay huddled around the romantic flame he’s got waiting at home.
“When you listen to these songs, I wanted them to slam, I wanted them to literally punch you in the face,” he says, laughing again as he thinks back to that long-ago Mötley Crüe show. “But this is my song that says ‘Hey, I can do other stuff, too.’
“I learned not to be afraid of the heavier side because it’s something I love just as much as country music,” Denning goes on. “But I feel like a lot of people today come from where I come from – we just like music and it doesn’t matter what you call it. I’m gonna make music for people like that.”