Nominee Travis Denning Is Ready to Hit the 2020 CMT Music Awards Stage
The hits keep coming for Travis Denning: The emerging country star scored a 2020 CMT Music Awards nomination for “After a Few” as Breakthrough Video of the Year, sharing the category with Caylee Hammack, HARDY, Ingrid Andress, Mickey Guyton, and Riley Green.
The 27-year-old took the track straight to the top this summer, reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay after a record-breaking 65 weeks on the charts. “When I found out, it was this feeling that I’d won, I’d hit the top of the mountain,” he says. “I think for anyone in this town, especially a songwriter and artist, that’s the biggest thing you can accomplish. That made me feel that I was part of country-music history. I’m in the books at No. 1. It’s hard not to look back and think about what got me to that point. It’s a lot of emotions. I definitely celebrated for about eight days straight.” The smash, written in collaboration with Kelly Archer and Justin Weaver, is featured on his well-received debut EP Beer’s Better Cold.
Denning is set to perform at 2020 CMT Music Awards on the Ram Trucks Side Stage along with other breakout artists. We caught up with the Mercury Nashville singer-songwriter to get a hint of what we can expect from his debut on the show.
It’s clear you had a packed year ahead before coronavirus threw a wrench in things.
Travis Denning: It was kind of the first time in my life I had my whole year planned. We were out with Dustin Lynch. We were going out with Sam Hunt. We were going to hit clubs to just have fun with some headline dates in the fall. Everything was flipped upside-down. It’s like losing the big game on the last play—you don’t know what to think. For me, the biggest thing I wanted to do was hunker down and take this time to write a bunch of new songs, record some new stuff and find out what we’re going to do with music. This is the first time I’ve been off the road this long. It’s weird, but for me, it’s the time to write and nail down who I am as a songwriter.
You have picked up some dates, including your return show earlier this month in Lynchburg, Tennessee. What was it like to be back on stage?
It was amazing seeing people fired up, jumping up and down singing the songs. You can tell the crowd missed this as much as we do. Everybody was super-safe. The seated area was socially distanced with mandatory masks. For me, I thought the mask thing would be really strange, but it has become our new norm. It’s not any different than doing it going to the grocery store.
That was the first time I got to sing “After a Few” since it had gone to No. 1. It was special and meant the world to me. It put some perspective on how lucky I am to do this for a living.
You recently joined TikTok. What was your motivation?
I’m an old man at 27. I came up when Vine was the deal. I was turned off by [TikTok]. When I stepped back and got away from my own thoughts, it is just a cool, amazing social media platform. I never thought we would have another social media platform. I thought we’d have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, and that was it. At the end of the day, I like having fun and goofing off as a way to use it differently than anything I’ve used before.
You’re the same age as Morgan Wallen, who made headlines recently when Saturday Night Live yanked him from performing after a TikTok showed him without a mask at a crowded bar. What did you think when you heard that?
I think it’s case-by-case. Morgan is a great friend. I know his heart and that he is an amazing guy. I treat social media as a way to give people a small part of my life. I try to show them I love to fish, drink beer and sing country music. As long as they get on that, I feel like I’ve done my job.
You have your first CMT Music Awards nomination for “After a Few.” Why do you think this song has resonated with listeners?
It’s because everybody has been there—people can relate to it one way or another. I don’t care if you’re 7, 17, 27. We’ve all had a relationship that, for whatever reason, we know we need to get out of but keep coming back to whether it’s [because of] a few beers, few texts, whatever.
The video was so special—I think it matched the song perfectly. I was excited mainly because it was the first time I’ve acted in something, which was definitely one of the more awkward things I’ve done in my life. The director Justin Clough did an amazing job and made me feel super-comfortable. Sometimes you’re taking a gamble with relationships like that. You have to see it through and how it ends.
You have the added pressure of performing the song before millions on CMT. How are you preparing?
The No. 1 thing is I love to play guitar, [so] I wanted to make sure I had a guitar on. It’s a darker song as far as the feel and production, [but] I want to really show the fun aspect of that chorus. It’s always such a fun song to [sing] live, so I want to give that off with my performance. I don’t want to go crazy with it, but I want to give them what they want to see.
What do you predict for live tours on the other side of this pandemic?
You’ll see some technical things change—how we sanitize backstage and the safety protocols with crew members. As far as the crowds, I think they’ll come back stronger than ever. We just can’t wait to get out there.
With your popularity growing, who do you go to for advice in adjusting to fame and getting to where you want to go in your career?
Justin Moore is the first person I think about. Then there is Dustin Lynch. Two guys I’ve known for a long time. When Dustin and I went on tour earlier this year, I got to talk to him about things like radio, touring, ups and downs. It’s good to hear it from someone who has been there and done that.
When you look at country music, it’s as diverse as ever. CMT has made a 50/50 pledge for equal airtime. You also see stars like fellow nominee Mickey Guyton breaking down walls. What do you make of the landscape of the genre?
I think it is hands-down more open and available for anybody as far as any style. It’s all there. I think that is amazing. We need that. We need to make everyone who wants to come to Nashville feel like they can. That’s important.
Who are you listening to these days? Who inspires you?
My all-time favorites are Dierks Bentley and Eric Church. I put pen to paper with them because they are some of my biggest influences. Among newer artists, I think Caylee Hammack is bad-ass. She sings her ass off. My boy HARDY is crushing it, completely blowing up. It’s cool to see those two people do their own thing and stick to what they want to do. It’s paying off for both of them.
You just released “Goodyears,” which is already generating buzz. What inspired it?
That’s a song I wrote over four years ago, one of my favorites. We used to play it a lot early on. It’s one of those songs I always got asked about: [Fans] wanted to know when it was coming out. It was going to be on this one record after the tour shook out, but [then] the whole way we were going to approach 2020 changed. I said, “Screw it. People want to hear music. Why not give them something they asked for?” The song is what I think about. I care a lot about where I come from—my hometown and my morals and values and how I was raised.
You mention writing over quarantine and have an EP out. How close are we to seeing a full album from you?
It’s close. I wouldn’t say this year but early next year. I think now more than ever I just want people to have music. We’ve done a lot already. I’m excited for the newer stuff and older stuff too. I think it will be a great project.
You did have a chance to do some golfing last month, and you posted a photo meeting The Undertaker. How did that come about?
Bradley Jordan put this tournament on. He is one of my closest friends and a great promoter. We were hitting golf balls and excited for the tournament. Bradley grabs me and says I have to walk with him to this car right now. He told me I would never believe who it was. I start guessing—I’m thinking it’s a UGA [University of Georgia] player—and we see this big dude. If I had 10,000 guesses, that wouldn’t be any of them. He was super-sweet. I asked him if it was Mr. Undertaker? Mr. ‘Taker? I didn’t know what to call him. He was just an awesome guy.
Have you given much thought how it would feel to take home a CMT Music Award?
It would be my first award ever. I don’t know what I’d do. I definitely have a spot in my house for it to go, so we’ll see what happens.
You might even have a few after.
Hell, yeah. That’s going to happen regardless.
2020 CMT Music Awards, Wednesday, October 21, 8/7c, CMT, MTV, MTV2, Logo, Paramount Network, Pop TV and TV Land