Dierks Bentley has the kind of career that will give singer/songwriters hope. His self-titled major label debut, released in 2003 on Capitol Nashville, went Platinum through the strength of its first single, “What Was I Thinkin’?” The song stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Country chart for two weeks and led to numerous awards, incuding “Top New Artist” nods from The Academy of Country Music and Billboard and R&R magazines, and the “Breakout Artist of the Year Award” from Music Row magazine. As with his debut, Bentley also contributed to the majority of songs on his latest record, Modern Day Drifter, which landed at Bilboard‘s No. 1 spot just one week after its May 10th release.
What should warm a singer/songwriter’s heart is that Bentley found success on his own terms, maintaining control over his production and song selection, and staying close to the bluegrass and traditional country styles that inspire him. It’s important to note, however, that this freedom is contingent on continued hit records. “I’m really lucky that I’ve got a record label that lets me do my thing,” he says. “But I’m sure that if my thing wasn’t working out very well, then there’d be some other influences coming in.”
Anyone paying attention to Bentley’s career should know that success didn’t happen over night. After moving to Nashville 11 years ago, the 29-year-old singer, who was raised in Phoenix, Ariz., struggled to find his voice and his place. Like a lot of aspiring writers, Bentley discovered that his precious songs fell on deaf ears in a city where waiters and cab drivers are also likely to be fellow songwriters.
“I remember the first time I had the nerve to play one of my songs for someone. I was working answering phones for a Nashville publishing company, and some of the songwriters invited me upstairs to have a drink. They were going to play some songs, and maybe I could play one I’d written too. So we all sat in a circle, and the guitar came around to me, and I played a song that had gotten a good response from my family and my friends. I thought it was pretty good. When I got done, one writer said ‘Man, I never really got the hook on that song.” Then another said, “It took you forever to get to the chorus.’ It was semi-devastating. In the end, one of the guys pulled me aside and told me to call him after I’d written 500 songs. I thought he was just being an asshole, but he was just trying to help me. I learned that you’ve got to write them and throw them away. Don’t take them too personally and be ready to let go of them. Let them be beaten up, and just let them go where they need to go. That was a good lesson.”
Bentley persisted, finding a performance home in the divey bars of Nashville’s Lower Broad and an inspirational home at the famous bluegrass club the Station Inn-where he drowned his initial frustrations in traditional music. Bentley assimilated the rootsy sound, and in 1999, he self-produced a CD that featured players from singer/songwriter Jamie Hartford’s band as well as from one of Bentley’s idols, bluegrass great the Del McCoury Band. (It bears noting that both artists also contributed to Bentley’s Capitol debut as well as Modern Day Drifter.) A copy of the CD landed at publishing giant Sony/Tree-home to such legendary writers as Bill Anderson, Bobby Braddock and the late Harlan Howard–and they heard something they liked; Bentley’s sound was right in line with the traditional, Americana music that was featured in the hit soundtrack for the film Oh, Brother Where Art Thou. They signed him to a deal, and for the first time, Bentley was able to quit his day job.
“Sony/Tree was the one and only company I visited. They offered me fifteen grand a year and I said ‘Hell yeah, give me anything so I can quit this other place and do music full-time.’ But it wasn’t just about songwriting, it was about playing music for a living, and I didn’t have the luxury to pick and choose. There’s always a trade off with a big company like Sony/Tree. You might get paid a little more and there’s a larger pool of people to write with, but with a small company, your songs will get more attention. In the end, though, it’s really about the writer. Like a record deal, just because you get one doesn’t mean you’re going to be a star. You’ve got to work even harder and push your agenda even more. You’ve got to keep writing songs and work with the songplugger by offering suggestions about who you think a song would work for. You’ve still got to work it.”
“Working it” is something Bentley knows a thing or two about. Articles about him invariably mention his work ethic, which drove him and his band to perform over 300 gigs last year. On Music Row, there’s a saying: “You have your whole life to work on the songs for your first record but only a year to work on songs for your second.” Add to that a non-stop road schedule, and it’s hard to believe that Bentley ever managed to finish Modern Day Drifter.
“It’s hard to write out on the road,” he says. “There’s other business to be done out there. There’re phone calls to make, radio stations to visit, signing with the fans, changing guitar strings and interviews; it’s not just about being a gypsy and writing songs. And on top of that, you never sleep very well on the road anyway. I have to remind myself to write everyday, or at least tread water when it comes to my writing chops. I put my song ideas in a book I’ve got next to my bed or on my recorder or my computer. I get them started here and take them back to Nashville to finish them. You’re always a student when it comes to writing, and I’m always working on the craft. I’m probably not writing anything good on the road, but at least I’m writing.”
Co-writing is the Nashville way. Though Bentley had a hand in composing eight of the 11 songs on Modern Day Drifter, he shares writing credits on all of them. His most frequent contributor is his producer, Brett Beavers. “My first two records I wrote a lot by myself, but on Modern Day Drifter I leaned more on co-writing. The stakes are a little higher with this record, and there’s no time to mess around. There are two or three guys you know you can get it done with, and this time I had to lean on Brett a lot because I know we’re coming from the same spot: we both love traditional country music. I never want to write a great song just to write a great song, though; it’s got to fit me. I may be writing with someone and they think it’s going to be a song on my record-but I know halfway through, that even though it’s a great song, it’s not going to be for me.”
Modern Day Drifter‘s “Gonna Get There Someday” demonstrates Bentley’s commitment to traditional country songwriting. The track, co-written with Beavers and Canadian songwriter Deric Ruttan, appears to be a love ballad at first: “Glad I told you all I meant to/while I had the chance/’Cause every moment I had with you/made me who I am.” In its final verse, however, the listener realizes that the song is a lament for a deceased mother: “I’ll just leave these daisies by your stone/and Mama, I still miss you every day.” The song’s surprise ending recalls George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” In the classic song written by Bobby Braddock, it turns out that the protagonist is freed from heartache because “they placed a wreath upon his door.”
‘”Gonna Get There Someday’ is probably the least autobiographical song on the record because my mom’s still living; she’s doing fine,” Bentley admits. “Most of my songs are written from relationships that I’ve been in, so the girlfriend stuff is autobiographical, but the twist part came to us at the end. The song starts out that you’ve lost your girl, but then the knife gets twisted 180 degrees–it hurts, and that’s what makes a great country song.”
Bentley is something of a rarity in contemporary country music. A self-directed singer/songwriter, he’s actively involved in both the nuts-and-bolts of his career and the material that ends up on his records. That’s not to say that outside pressure–including the influence of co-writers–doesn’t play a role, but thus far Bentley has worked the Nashville system to his advantage. “People have different visions about what they see Nashville being. [Some] put down the Nashville way of writing, but for me it’s about working with the greatest songwriters in the world. Not guys who are just talented, but guys that are most driven craft-wise too. They’re all there, and I love it.