Travis Denning says his favorite song to perform live right now is a blistering guitar song called "Call It Country," and when you hear the rocker, you'll know why. His show-opener — and the first song on a new EP called Dirt Road Down — turns the volume way up, reminding fans what they've been missing.

It's what Denning has been missing, too. The "After a Few" hitmaker hunkered down like everyone did once the pandemic began in March 2020, with very few shows scattered through July 2021. Talking to Taste of Country this spring, he admitted to doing a lot of songwriting and a lot of fishing as he leaned into personal relationships. That changed as of July 29 when his tour with Brothers Osborne began. It's a good time to have new music.

"Really it just came from a place of missing live music," Denning tells Taste of Country Nights radio about his six-song EP, available Aug. 6. "I thought about what kind of moments we want on stage when we got back, and that’s where songs like ‘Call It Country’ and ‘Dirt Road Down’ came from."

Producer Jeremy Stover helped craft a wall of sound to support Denning's storytelling, particularly effective on songs like "Dirt Road Down."

“Who doesn’t love a good nostalgic heartbreak song? That’s country music," he says.

Current single "ABBY" rounds out the project, a mix of his varied musical and lyrical influences. Guitar and pen heroes all get a nod on this project. If you're not feeling the fire of "Call It Country," skip to "I Went Fishing." It's a story song told over an acoustic guitar that shows that even when Denning was fishing, he was really doing so much more.

UMG Nashville

Best Country Albums of 2021 - Critic's Pick

There have been many creative country albums in 2021, but not all have hit the mark. Artists are more than ever toying with distribution methods and packaging as much as they are new sounds, so you get double and triple albums, Part 1 and Part 2, and digital EPs in lieu of a traditional 10 or 11-song release.

The bar for an EP on this list of the best country albums of 2021 is higher than an LP, but one project did crack the Top 10. Too much music proved to dampen other artist's efforts, although Alan Jackson's first album in years was filled with country music we couldn't turn away from. Where Have You Gone has 21 songs, but somehow no filler.

More than ever, this relied on staff opinion and artistic merit to allow for some parity among major label artists and independents. The 10 albums listed below are not ranked, although the year-end list published in the fall will crown a true best album of 2021.