Blame George Strait for causing Kevin Denney to seek his future in country music.
The Monticello, Ky. native was only 18 when he took the 140-mile trip from his home in southern Kentucky to see Strait in concert in Lexington thanks to his girlfriend at the time.
Until then, Denney was not so sure about music. After growing up playing bluegrass with his cousins Clyde and Marie Denny (same last name, but interestingly enough, a different spelling) on the festival circuit, Denney needed a break.
"I took probably a six month (break)," says Denney, in a telephone interview from Nashville in mid-April a few days before the release of his strong, honky tonk-oriented debut with odes to Haggard and Jones. "I thought maybe I needed a real job, a different career, maybe something more promising."
But seeing Strait changed all that.
"I just fell in love with country music," says Denney, now 24.
"I think it was just the atmosphere. George himself is inspiring. Just the crowd and the lights. It was just what I wanted to do. I wanted to create that for myself."
"I love the old George Strait records."
"I come back to my home town and get on the phone and started calling musicians that I knew. I ended up booking a country band together. I booked shows. I did the booking myself. I was 18, working with older people than me. I called clubs, festivals."
"For a couple of years, I didn't have a job. I didn't make a lot of money. I made my spending money."
When he just turned 20, he made the 170-mile trek to seek his fortune in Nashville. "I wasn't nervous at all. I was just looking forward to going on my own - chasing my goals and dreams. I met up with a lot of songwriters and got to be really good friends with a lot of songwriters. God is good. He put me in the right place."
He worked at the apartment complex where he lived and eventually sold merchandise for a Lorrie Morgan tour before getting signed to a publishing deal to write songs.
Denney met his eventual producer, Leigh Reynolds, through a mutual friend. Reynolds had a studio in his house. "He got me my writing deal too and shopped me around. That was a big help - to get to write songs for a living and not having to worry about supporting yourself."
As a writer, Denney never had any cuts make it onto the silver platter, but "I had a lot of holds," meaning an artist reserved a particular song with no guarantees it would be recorded.
"It really wasn't frustrating because I was heavy working into my own thing at the same time," says Denney. "If I didn't get cuts, it didn't really break my heart."
Reynolds had an in at Lyric Street Records with a friend in label exec Doug Howard, who gave him an open door to bring in talent.
Sometimes, Denney thought, "man, are we really making any progress? For two years, I wrote really hard, trying to write my album, trying to get to the point where I could cut some stuff for them."
"After we cut the first four songs, we had a deal," says Denney, who penned 4 of the 11 songs on the disc.
And Denney is not doing too shabbily either out of the box with a debut single, "That's Just Jessie," one of the most mainstream sounding songs on the disc, making the Top 15 of the charts.
Most of the rest is steeped in traditional sounds.
"Me and my producer kind of had our own motto before we started - to make music our heroes would be proud of," says Denney. "That's just what we shot for, and I hope we've done it."
"I would say the two people who influenced my style the most were probably Keith Whitley and George Jones," he says. "Just (their) music and personal. I just love the men too. I think those guys are just exceptional."
"I grew up in the same part of the country that Keith did, so I was influenced by his style. And my grandmother was just a huge George Jones fan. I remember even when I was three or four years old, she'd be playing George Jones. I didn't really know who he was, but I was listening to his music all the time. I've been listening to his music all my life."
As it turned out, Denney did get the chance to meet Jones, but it was not your typical meet and greet backstage.
"My Kind of Song" was penned by Phil O'Donnell and Reynolds initially. "They were working on the song, and they played it for me, and it was about half-finished," Denney says. "I had a lot of ideas for the song. Phil was working on George's pool, and we finished the song working on George's pool. I was helping him finish the pool."
"There's the line at the end - 'I'm talking Strait to Jones.' I've got to say that. He talked with us and sat with us for awhile. That was one of the memories that I had - he was mowing his lawn."
"Cadillac Tears" probably will be the second single, according to Denney. Reynolds found the song. "I just thought it was one of the most unique written songs that I'd heard in a long time. I had never heard a shuffle written like that before. I thought it was fun. I called it my women's song."
Denney says he liked the twist with the woman getting back at the guy in the song.
"It's a blast to play live. I think it'll be a fun summer song."
And "Ain't Skeered" is an example of great minds thinking a lot. It's a revved-up song about a long-time love.
"We didn't have anything really burning up, a really uptempo thing that we really loved," says Denney. "It was so funny. An A&R guy at the label wanted to put it on hold for me, and my producer wanted to put a hold on it. They found the same song. We had a song (picking) meeting, and they were (separately) going to play the same song."
So far so good. The music may be done, and the disc is out, but that doesn't leave Denney feeling all that relaxed despite his early success. "I'm anxious," he says.