When Dierks Bentley was just another Nashville newbie strumming covers in lower Broadway joints for tips from tourists, he wrote thousands of songs. That is, he wrote down thousands of songs, transcribing other writers’ lyrics not only to learn their material, but to analyze their work.
“Every little word mattered to me,” he says. “I have books and books at my house, notepads, front and back. The front was country; the back would be bluegrass, and I’d just fill both sides of these yellow legal pads. I was trying to learn the craft of writing songs.
“Songs are everything,” Bentley asserts. “If you ain’t got the song, you ain’t got anything.”
Clearly, he’s got a few. Since he began his recording career in 2003, Bentley has accumulated a string of No. 1 country singles, five No. 1 country albums (plus a No. 1 bluegrass album) and nine Grammy nominations. In 2005, 10 years after his musical dreams propelled him, at 19, from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Tennessee, he became the youngest-ever member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Yet it would take almost another 10 years for him to fulfill one of his biggest dreams: headlining his own tour. Bentley’s Riser outing, his first as the top-billed act, began in mid-May. It’s a major production, with a first-generation “wave” video wall, a secondary stage for communing with outdoor-shed lawn-dwellers and three opening acts.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life for this,” Bentley admits. “I’ve seen people get to this spot quicker than me, but nobody’s wanted it more. And now I’m finally here and I just told everyone who handles the money stuff, ‘We’re goin’ big. We’re gonna tour this year like it’s the last tour we’re ever gonna do.’”
And Bentley, who likes to get fans in the mood by dropping in on their pre-show tailgate parties, digs big. Influenced as much by rock and roll as he is by country, he loves to “run around onstage like an idiot and climb out into the crowd … and get my Garth on for an hour or two.”
He says he also likes to “get my Bono on a little bit, too” – not to mention his bluegrass; Bentley, who recorded U2’s “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” on his 2010 bluegrass album, Up On The Ridge, will join Ed Helms’ Bluegrass Situation SuperJam at Bonnaroo in June.
His acceptance by the bluegrass community is among the traits that prevent his easy dismissal as just another bro-country act. In fact, Bentley honed his chops at the Station Inn, Nashville’s bluegrass bastion, and Ridge, which features many of the genre’s leading lights, rejuvenated his career at a point when he was ready to give up after failing to reach headliner status. It also, as allmusic.com points out, showed he’s “shrewd enough to walk the line between commercial and artistic concerns.”
Sure, his usual fare leans toward songs about booze and trucks and women and partying. Sure, Riser, the album he’s touring behind, contains tracks titled “Sounds Of Summer,” “Back Porch” and “Pretty Girls” (on which he references “Pretty girls drinkin’ tall boys/ Swingin’ their hips to a country song”). Of course, he knows they’ll play well in arenas and create plenty of sponsorship opportunities (including the Tennessee moonshine brand sponsoring this tour). But “Pretty Girls” has a slow-dance tempo, and his baritone carries hints of melancholy, not lust.
And for each of those, there’s a “Damn These Dreams.” In that one, Bentley strips down to a strummed acoustic and the truth, revealing how falling for Hank and the high of hearing his song on the radio has become the hurt of leaving his family every time he goes “chasin’ that same old whiskey melody.”
In 2013, Bentley’s son, Knox, was born, joining two sisters. A year earlier, Bentley lost his father. Those milestones give Riser an emotional depth that offsets the party songs. In “Here On Earth,” his grief is palpable. Even the truck mentioned at the start of “I Hold On” becomes a vehicle to convey how certain possessions mean so much more than the materials they’re made of. When that pickup carried Bentley and his dreams to Nashville, his dad was by his side.
Perhaps it should also be noted that another track, “Drunk On A Plane,” twists tragedy – being left at the altar – into a party song with a sense of humor. It’s also been turned into a truly hilarious video that features Bentley as both passenger and pilot – which he actually is. His small-plane pilot’s license allows him to get home to his family faster, he explains in the documentary, Dierks Bentley: Riser.
Bentley’s hedged his musical bets with a Scottsdale restaurant, Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row, that features in-booth beer and liquor taps; a Chicago edition is about to open. But it’s also a safe bet that it won’t turn into his main source of income anytime soon.
“I love what I do. I love country music,” he says. “I’m still the same kid that’s eaten up with it. The chance to play it for any sort of living, it’s unbelievable. For me, back in the day, just playing for free beer, that was the coolest thing ever, like ‘I’m gettin’ free beer to play music at this gig. Wow. I’ve made it!’ And here I am now, 10 years in, and it’s still growing; I get to do this for a living; there’s no other gig like it.”