'80s metal band Motley Crue ignited Travis Denning's passion for music and desire to make it his career, but it was Jason Aldean who helped the up-and-comer see that blending rock and country can work seamlessly.

"I remember seeing Aldean when I was a senior in high school," Denning recalls to The Boot. "That show and the energy, and Kurt [Allison] on guitar, and [Aldean's] band and how tight they were -- I mean, it looked like they could have opened up for the Motley Crue show I saw when I was 12 years old and it would have fit perfectly, 'cause it was so high energy.

"But he was up there singing about my people, you know what I mean?" the singer adds. "He was telling the story of the people I grew up with and stories that I grew up doing."

Digging further back, the '90s baby cites Country Music Hall of Famers Brooks & Dunn as another early example of "folks who took that aspect of 'What can rock and loud guitars do for you?'" While they and their peers from the decade -- Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, etc. -- are now considered icons of a genre heyday, their style was met with skepticism, and even disdain, from country music purists at the time, much as many of today's hitmakers are.

Denning, who aims to marry his varied influences on his new EP, Beer's Better Cold, knows that's just part of the game. "I think when anybody looks back at any time, the artists in any format, in any genre, the ones that are pioneers and the ones that are cornerstone artists, the legacy of music, they always pushed boundaries, they did things differently, and they probably pissed off people along the way by doing that," he muses.

"You look back, like: Dolly Parton ... They were like, 'Dolly Parton's disco. She's too pretty for country. It's too slick. It's all this.' But she's our undisputed queen of country music. Conway Twitty literally was a pop artist: He had hits on pop radio," Denning notes. "I mean, I've read articles before -- like, archives on The New York Times or just some big newspapers, from the '80s, and there were conversations about country music that, I'm telling you, if you had just switched the artists' names, they would have looked like they came out last year."

The ever-ongoing "What is country music?" debate can feel tiring, but to Denning, it's encouraging. "It's a reality that, you know, all genres just constantly deal with," he says.

"I'm here to make music, and I'm making music the way I really want to. And I hope that some people like it, and at the end of the day, if only two people ever liked my music, at least I can kind of go to the end thinking I did it the way I wanted to, you know?" Denning continues. "And I think if it was vice versa, I just don't think in the long run that would be content with my art."

"At the end of the day, I hope the EP is an escape for people. I've still been writing songs and trying to be creative, and really focusing my energy on that during this time, but I know a lot of people are just trying to let go and kind of forget what's going on ... So I'm hoping this might weirdly be a time where people are really digesting music better than they ever have."

Travis Denning Beer's Better Cold EP
UMG Nashville

Denning's debut EP, Beer's Better Cold follows two singles: the Top 40-charting "David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs" and the Top 5-and-climbing "After a Few." The latter is one of six tracks on the project, five of which were co-written by Denning with, among others, hitmaker Rhett Akins.

"Writing with Rhett, first off, is always a blast. It's always fun because ... I think Rhett Akins knows more about music than any other human I have ever met," Denning, a fellow Georgia native, shares. "He can talk to you all day about country music; he can talk to you about Aerosmith and Motley Crue, and then, me and him always talk about like old, old Delta blues -- like, we love Robert Johnson and so much of that '40s and 50s and '30s Delta blues. He's a music lover like me, and we really bonded over that."

Akins, a successful artist himself back in the '90s, is responsible for dozens of hit country songs, including, among many others, Brooks & Dunn's "Put a Girl in It," Brantley Gilbert's "Kick It in the Sticks" and Blake Shelton's "Honey Bee." "I just think he has the best head on his shoulders to not think too hard," Denning says, citing Beer's Better Cold's lead track, "Where That Beer's Been."

"I had that title forever," Denning recalls. "'I don't know where that beer has been' was my thought, and that's all I had. And without even thinking about it, [Akins] said, 'Yeah, but I know where it's going.' I mean, I had this hook for months.

"That is that kind of ... genius that can't even be really taught, you just kind of have to live it. And I think he's not afraid to do anything because he doesn't give a damn what other people think ...," the singer continues. "I think he does the best to bring out who everybody really is in the room. And I love to write with somebody like that because ... he's a guy that can just cover all the bases.

"Don't tell him I complimented him," Denning adds with a laugh.

The Beer's Better Cold EP arrived Friday (May 15). Jeremy Stover produced the project.

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