With a background steeped in horses and competitions, Arkansas-native Denny Strickland makes a bold career move with his debut single "Honky Tonk Highway," lifted from an EP of the same name. With a jam-packed touring schedule, the singer has high hopes for 2014, with his sights set on a possible full-length album. The diverse six-song EP contains signifcant rock and traditional influences, stemming from his early onstage collaborations with Kris Kristofferson and John Carter Cash.
"This project is evolving," he tells NashvilleGab, exclusively, of the EP. "We feel like there’s more songs to add, of course, to make the full album. We’re looking forward to positive direction."
"Honky Tonk Highway," co-written by Phil O'Donnell and Bernie Nelson, is filled with promise. "My first thoughts were, ‘it’s uptempo. It’s rocking, fun,’" he shares of the song, adding: "I found out about it simply by word-of-mouth."
While his career is in its infancy, Strickland doesn't find any part of it extremely daunting. "If your mind is set on it and you’re well organized and have all your aces in the hole, you’re ready to go!" he says.
One of the more interesting songs on his EP is "A Cowboy And A Dancer," a sensitive, western-swing inspired ballad. "That song definitely fits my background in the horse industry, growing up with that at an early age."
His family's farm certainly inspires Strickland, especially as he makes the transition to music. "When we were getting ready for the World Show, everyday we’d ride right after school. It’s great," he recounts. "Now that I’m out working on my music career, going back and riding is a good way to escape."
Strickland credits his performance experience to his horses, something he never takes for granted. "I was in band all through school along with football and track," he shares. "I started piano lessons in 1996. I was about six years old. Then, I joined band in fifth grade. Even the horse stuff was about performance. It wasn’t music, but it was with a horse. It was performing in front of crowds, as far as pushing the horse through the different tasks they asked. In a sense, I’ve been doing it all my life."
"When I was doing some work with Marshall Grant, who was the guitarist for Johnny Cash, his escape was the horses, too. We connected on our love of horses," he reveals.
On working with Marshall Grant, he admits that he "heard more stories of Johnny and them on the road. A lot of people don’t know how funny Marshal was. He used to build bombs on the road, when they were on those long hauls. He’d number them one to six on how powerful they were."
"One time, they were doing a show with Marty Robbins, and Johnny had clogged up the commode in the little opry house they were in," Strickland says. "Johnny asked Marshal, ‘got anything to open it up?’ He said, ‘yes, what do you think it needs?’ Johnny then said, ‘I think it needs a number six.’ Well, they flushed that bomb down the toilet. It didn’t go off right away. It waited and sucked up the pipes a little ways and went to where the women’s bathroom was."
He continues, "Then, it went off. During Marty’s performance, all these women were running out with their underwear in their hand and screaming and shouting. It was such an explosion that it ruined Marty’s performance. Everybody evacuated the building, and Marty said, ‘where’s that damn Grant!’ The fire department showed up, and they got out of dodge."
Strickland details his relationship with Grant and their last performance together: "Marshal was a one-of-a-kind guy. I actually made some donations to the Johnny Cash Museum here in Nashville. I donated the last bass Marshal ever played. We did a show down in Jonesboro, Arkansas at the Johnny Cash Music Festival. He passed away after that, and we were putting special stuff together. He managed me a little bit in my early stages. That was our last performance together. He was so awesome. He gave me the best advice from anybody that I hold dearly to my heart and use everyday. He discovered me and tried to get my foot in the door."
With years of live shows, Strickland confesses that while he has never forgotten words to a song, he has reworked some of the lyrics. "We get in that routine of performing. You improvise," he advises. "I see more improvisation than anything. I might not miss a word, but I might say something differently, especially if you get in your zone."
He adds, "Everybody sings things a little different when they get comfortable on stage. I’ve heard stories of Kenny Rogers getting used to singing a certain way, and he went and played a live show and the audience knew his stuff better than he did. [laughs] He did it differently in the sense, maybe they had a shortened version for radio or something."
As important as trucks are to country music, they are just as crucial to Strickland. "I’m a Chevrolet guy, and it seems to be the sponsor for country music," he chuckles. "It seems a lot of country artists are driving those. That’s all my family drove. I do have a heart for Ford. I definitely like their cars. I’m a hot-rod enthusiast. If I’m not [around] the horses or doing music, I’m working on my ‘68 Camaro. You learn really quick that nobody takes care of your stuff better than you do. You better learn how to work on it, or you’re gonna get taking advantage of. If you come to Nashville, you’ll probably see me on the side of the road [checking stuff] on it."
"We actually got in a bit of a drag race recently. A guy from up North came down, and he thought he would would put it on us old southern boys. He had ‘66 Cobra, and he had a big block in it. I mean, I’ve done a lot of stuff to mine. He came out of the Broadway Hard Rock, and he was looking over at us. He’s nagging at me a little bit. We then light him up. I end up beating him, and it made him so upset. [laughs] He was coming unglued."
Nearly two years ago, Strickland was involved with a life-threatening tornado storm following a show in Branson, Missouri. "We were thrown across the Wal-Mart parking lot," Strickland says of the terrifying event. "Another fellow and I were driving on the road. We pulled out for the night. We were doing a show with Gilley’s Band. We had hired him to fill in some stuff for a gig we had. We got hit with a tornado. We had no idea."
"Originally, we were supposed to park in Gilley’s lot but he was having it repaved. If we would’ve stayed at his place, we would have been fine. That was the only place that didn’t get hit," he notes.
"We pulled in next to the Taco Bell there. It was about midnight, and I had fallen asleep," he recalls, vividly. "I woke up about a minute before the storm, and I had a funny feeling in my gut, ‘something’s not right.’ So, I started going to the front of the bus, and as I went, the shutters on the bus were rocking. Right when I was reaching for the door, that’s when it hit. It sucked me backwards. We spun, and I was suspended basically. I just remember saying my prayers, ‘Lord, please help me get through this.’ I really didn’t even know what I was going through. I didn’t really feel a thing. When we stopped spinning, I was sitting there. I wiggled my toes to make sure I could feel. My adrenaline was pumping so much. I then stood up and smelled the diesel. The gas and septic was everywhere. I had no shoes on and luckily I had my jeans. I actually had my Johnny Cash T-shirt on from the show we did. It was all ripped up. I didn’t realize how bad I was until I took shelter later. My wet socks kept my feet from getting cut up as bad as they could have. I didn’t have any cuts on my feet."
His horrifying tale continues, "The refrigerator had fallen. There was an itty bitty gap underneath. I see my friend. Instead of sticking his head through, he sticks his feet through. I grab his ankles and pull him through. I said, ‘you okay?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I told him, ‘these girls outside said we’re about to get hit with another one. We gotta get out of here.’"
We ran down the street of Branson and took shelter in a Taco Bell. It was a one of a kind experience, that’s for sure. Every time we have a storm I make sure I have my shoes on," he jokes.
"Every time I went to sleep after that, I had the wildest dreams."
On the rest of this year, he promises big things, "We’ve got a lot of things in the mix. We’ve got a lot of surprises coming up and things we’re working on. With our live show, you never know what’s gonna happen. I’m wanting to incorporate some things into the show. When I start getting my career going, I might ride a horse in, who knows."
Don't forget to grab your copy of "Honky Tonk Highway" on iTunes now!