Dierks Bentley – Are you ready for the country?
Like a lot of music-crazed friends of mine have done over the years, he showed up just a little bit late, because he was curious to hear — no, needed to hear — that new album by Shooter Jennings, Waylon’s son, which was just out. And while he was picking up a copy at a nearby record store, he’d gotten a little involved in browsing through the racks. It happens. You know how it is.
People have been noticing the Waylon influence — in both the sound and the point of view — on his own new single, “Lot Of Leavin’ Left To Do”. When people occasionally express surprise that a country singer started out in Phoenix, Arizona, he reminds them Phoenix was where Waylon first recorded on his own, and spent a long time there playing live at J.D.’s nightclub, before becoming widely known.
At 29, Dierks Bentley has a handle on a lot of country music’s history. He already has his own considerable history of playing in lots of small joints; if you’d caught him as little as two years ago, he probably would have been playing honky-tonk in a bar on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, or leading a pick-up bluegrass band at somebody’s picnic. He still leads his own steady traveling band today, a real one with general contributions and shared experiences.
And his name is on nearly all the songs he records. As a writer, Bentley does quite a bit of collaborating; only a busy touring schedule — well over 200 dates in the past year — has kept him from doing more, which apparently has gotten a little frustrating.
“I should be writing with more people, branching out,” he claims. “Jim Lauderdale wants to write with me. Marty Stuart wants to, Rodney Crowell, Radney Foster. I’ve seen all these guys on the road and they say, ‘Let’s do this!’ But I can’t find time now. I may get to a certain place where I can maybe take a breath — to get to write a song with Radney, have a beer with Jim. Even if we never got to a song and just sat around and talked, that would be just as important as an end result, just hangin’. I did have the chance to hang with Rodney Crowell, and we did write one song, but just to be in his presence, man, is just so cool!”
As we talked for several hours in early March at an apartment-like office in the middle of Nashville’s Music Row — about the music Bentley makes, and why it sounds the way it does, and what he wants it to do for audiences — what struck me most was the degree to which his musical interests and choices were essentially indistinguishable from those of many artists who have been profiled in these pages over the years. The cover song he chose for his 2003 self-titled Capitol Records debut was Buddy & Julie Miller’s “My Love Will Follow You”; the friendly “guest band” invited to share a key track on that Capitol release — and also on his new one, Modern Day Drifter (due out May 10) — is the Del McCoury Band.
Where this guy differs most strikingly, of course, is that his first album went platinum the week we had our talk, having already yielded a #1 single (“What Was I Thinkin'”) and two other top-tier country chart hits. For that reason alone, some reading these words may well wind up writing letters to the editor suggesting this author is deluded, deaf, or somehow has been conned.
But perhaps it might be possible to let the facts, the story and, most of all, the man’s music, speak for themselves.
It is a sure-enough fact that Dierks Bentley has sold a million copies of his self-titled disc, not 5,000 or 50,000, and that those sales did not occur three or four decades ago — a magical interval that seems to make massive acceptance by the country audience quaint enough to be unthreatening to “alternative” status. His sales have occurred in today’s country chart mainstream. He’s pulled it off as an artist working out a fresh synthesis of hard-hitting honky-tonk sounds, bluegrass sensibility, and a rocker’s flair, and so his level of success just might be one more indicator among many that in the battle to get more country back in country, we’ve been winning.
Sometimes it’s time to take “yes” for an answer. Assuming, or demanding, a permanently unbridgeable and yawning gap between Americana and mainstream country can turn into its own sort of yawn.
If Bentley is more focused — and more comfortable than some in saying, without shilly-shallying, that he wants to “bring my music to as many people as possible, and do as well as I can” — that doesn’t make him the slightest bit different from country icons from Hank to Merle to Cash to Loretta, or from most self-knowing and frank performers who get in front of an audience in the first place.
But what he means by “my music” may surprise you. For one thing, Bentley has been pretty dubious about the direction those “slick Nashville sounds” have been taking. And he can be passionately articulate about it.
“Oh, yes; I guess maybe I take country music way too seriously at times, because I hear some stuff that gets under my skin and I’m saying, ‘That’s not country!'” Bentley admits. “I try to take a step back and say, ‘Man, it’s just music, there on that video playing on CMT’ — though it’s just the furthest thing from country that I’ve heard in my entire life!
“So I do make a conscious effort when we’re in the studio to keep it tied to the roots, as far as instrumentation goes. On ‘What Was I Thinkin”, we got a sound where you can hear the individual instruments; we didn’t want another poppy love song. The steel guitar’s turned up loud, and you can hear a banjo, and that dobro in there, and there’s a mandolin and a fiddle. That shit’s cool if done the right way. I don’t just want a little ‘dobro part’ in there; I want to hear that tone through the whole song.