Travis Denning has always been an avid songwriter, but something about writing music felt different in 2020.
“Most of my life I wrote songs because I love writing songs, because I wanted to get a body of work together, because I wanted to get cuts by other artists. This was one of the first times where it was a mix of still wanting to write, but also escaping the reality of a sh–ty year, to be honest with you,” he tells Country Now. “Spending time to go, ‘Well, I’ll never have this much time again to write,’ and kind of re-honing in on that.”
But Denning’s songwriting regimen was about more than just escapism — it was even about more than practicing his craft. During a year when he traded in a busy tour schedule for quiet time spent at home and at his girlfriend’s parents’ house, the dramatic shift in his everyday life allowed him to think more introspectively and honestly about who he is as an artist.
“It was like, ‘Man, I got a lot of time to think about what I wanna say. So what do I wanna say?’” he recalls.
For any artist, that’s a big, abstract question, not one that can be boiled down into an easy answer. But Denning began to tackle it one write at a time. He began to focus on lyrics that captured honest, true moments that documented both the literal facts of what was going on in his life right that minute, as well as the emotional undercurrents of what he was feeling.
“Like, ‘I Went Fishing’ — it’s deeper than just about fishing, but it’s no secret that I spend a lot of time on the boat, too, you know? I was inspired by that,” he offers as an example, pointing to one of the six songs on his newly released Dirt Road Down EP.
That song was inspired by Denning’s headspace in the days right after his tour plans for 2020 — an opening run with Sam Hunt — officially got canceled. “That was just a moment where I realized this pandemic wasn’t going nowhere, and I knew that we probably weren’t gonna play any shows anytime soon. I was just very bummed and lost and uncertain, like everybody was,” he remembers.
“And so the next time I went fishing — you know, I didn’t think about that stuff,” the singer continues. “All I thought about was, ‘Am I gonna catch any damn bass?’…The more time I spend on the water, the more I realize, I mean, it truly is not about catching things that swim in the water. It’s about being out there and finding a little peace.”
Of course, Dirt Road Down isn’t just a collection of introspective, pandemic-era ballads. There’s songs like the fired-up “Call it Country,” which is such an up-tempo crowd-pleaser that Denning had already starting using it as his show opener before the EP was even officially out. His current single, “ABBY,” also finds a home on the track list, and is one of the few songs on the project written and recorded prior to 2020.
Another song, “Jack and Coke,” is also on the older side — though Denning believes it fits on the track list because of its introspective lyrics.
But it’s broad, reflective and layered tracks that define the project for Denning: Its title track, for example, and “Grew Up With a Truck,” which is the first song he’s ever recorded that he wrote solo.
“Honestly, it was amazing doing that process,” he says of the experience of creating the song without co-writers. “It was just something different. I didn’t have to finish the song in one day. I got to pick at it over a week. I think the song really became something cool from doing that, so I think I’m going to try it more in the future, to be honest with you. I really enjoyed the process.”
So ultimately, Denning’s question — “What do I want to say?” — isn’t a question of what he wants to say, but how he wants to say it. He’s learning to dig deeper and push further: To grab at the kind of subject matter that’s both true on a literal level and that has a deeper meaning. His path for getting there was pretty simple, he says. He just had to keep writing.
“It was more of just like, ‘Hey, write what you’re feeling. Don’t worry if this is a single, or if it fits, just write,’” he details. “Just write, write, write.”