Dierks Bentley: Can You Feel Me?

Written by May 1st, 2009 at 1:06 pm

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From the moment he made a name for himself in Nashville, Dierks Bentley has managed to fit in just about everywhere. Along with many of his country music heroes, he lent his vocals to a Grammy-winning Louvin Brothers tribute album in 2003. Yet he’s just as likely to show up on stage at rock festivals like Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza. As one of country music’s most relentless road warriors, he’s currently crisscrossing the continent opening shows for Brad Paisley-a gig that started just a month after performing at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Norway.

Although it’s a rarity in Nashville, Bentley scored a No. 1 with his debut single, “What Was I Thinkin’,” which paved the way for “How Am I Doin’,” “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do,” “Settle For a Slowdown,” “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)” and the title track of his new album, Feel That Fire. Although he co-wrote his first 11 country singles, he’s also recorded material by the likes of Radney Foster, Jamie Hartford and Buddy Miller.

“I’m not afraid to cut an outside tune,” he insists. “I really feel like what we [his band] do is a little different, you know? It’s still right there in mainstream country, but what I sing and what we do is just a little different, and I have a hard time finding songs that match, and that are true to what I am.”

At 19, Bentley moved to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt University. He later landed a job in the tape room of TNN (The Nashville Network), researching old TV shows. During his time there, he was firmly chastised for asking too many times for free tickets to the Grand Ole Opry. In a clever twist of fate, he joined the Opry’s all-star cast in 2005. Yet, he’s quick to admit that doesn’t automatically fit the mold of those country singers who came before him.

“I can’t sing stuff that is overly ‘country,’” he says. “I wasn’t raised on a farm and I’m not really comfortable singing stuff that’s not who I am. But I’ve traveled and I’ve been all over this country, and I’ve found that country music isn’t about wearing a cowboy hat and growing up on a farm. It’s a lifestyle, it’s a culture, and it’s a mindset.”

In this exclusive interview with American Songwriter, the 33-year-old star talks about how he learned the craft of country songwriting, his recent collaborations with Rodney Crowell and Patty Griffin, and what advice he’d give to young songwriters.

Aspiring musicians in Nashville can really get an education of playing the honky-tonks and the clubs. As a songwriter, how did that experience benefit you?
As a songwriter, you have to learn all the old songs. And you’re studying those songs, just when you’re playing for tips and stuff. You’re also inadvertently learning the craft of proper structure for a verse and chorus, and the time-honored tradition of country music. There’s not only a good hook, but a good knife-stab in there somewhere that twists the whole story around at the end. A lot of times I’d write all those lyrics down so I wouldn’t forget them, and in doing that, you can see how a proper song looks, and fits on paper. There’s a lot to learn by learning the old standards.

As a musician, it definitely benefits you because you have to not only get up there and sing, but you also have to surround yourself with other musicians, and you’re forced to go out there and find those guys. I wish I still had it, but I had this crinkled up piece of paper of numbers-I finally made one solid piece of paper, I had all typed out. Then of course I scratched numbers out, put one in, penciled a new steel player in, or you add a drummer. You just have your guys so if somebody cancels on you at three in the afternoon, you say “OK… Hey dude, would you like to come down and play tonight?” It forces you to really get to know the community of musicians here in Nashville. There’s no soft way to fall. You have to start calling people out of the blue, and you meet them on the stage: “Hey, we do 50s and 60s shuffles, come on in.”

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  • janet m

    This article underscores the serious side of fun loving music. Bentley’s approach to songwriting gives him such versatility and lattitude that his success is not surprising. What I find interesting is that he takes those opinions and marries those ideals with a wicked live show. Is it any surprise that he has a dedicated fan base?

    Intellectually, Bentley is under-rated. His commercial success has obscured his ability to broach the entire depth of the country genre and then some. But 6 million in record sales, and 6 Grammy nominations, and a chance to sing for the Nobel Peace Prize audience belay that. And yet when you ask fans about Bentley and his music., they see it as personal, aimed at them.

    His growth over the past few years has been something to watch and if the past is any indication of success, his future has stardom written all over it.

  • http://www.dierks.com Paige
  • http://www.dbcongress.blogspot.com Ronna

    Finally! Dierks Bentley is getting the song-writing recognition he deserves–in American Songwriter! I agree with Janet–his talent is so under-rated. His star is the brightest in the sky for me already–can’t wait for the rest of the world to see it! Looking forward to the rest of the article!

  • http://www.dierks.com lauraprrsh

    dierks youare awonderful song writer ana pretty cool friend to have iam very hapy to be in youre fan club ihave igot you acertificate award for miles an music this year an iwant to give you in person ilove every thing you do for evry one an for the kids at vander bulit hospital the world is beauitful becauseyouarein it an ivoted for you becaueseithink you are the best country singer ever hit nashville i really atmire every thing you do youare awonderful friend allways iwant to hear from you okay tellcassidy happy mothers day to her an tellyoure mom happy mothers day too from lauraprrshdierks allof youre music an videos aresovery awesome to meallways youwill allways be the greatest counrty star an youre band isthe greatesttoo keep up the good work an best wishesto youan youre family an band youare the only country articles iwill ever chocis to be in in the fan club with from lauraprrsh

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  • mona

    I love the fact that Dierks writes from experience. What is real. There are words of wisdom sprinkled throughout his lyrics, yet they do not preach. “Wasted time is something, man, when it’s gone, you can’t get it back” is just from one song. He is awesome! And he works so hard!

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  • Jack C.

    he can play some mean hockey too …

  • VALERIE

    Way back in 2003 when I heard What Was I Thinkin’ on the radio for the first time I felt that I had found the guy who could really energize country music. When I saw the video and saw his name down at the bottom of the screen as a co-writer on that song, I was really impressed. I knew that country music was in for a wild ride. I have known Dierks Bentley for six years now, and have attended close to 30 of his shows in six states. I still have the most fun at a Dierks Bentley show than any other. Of all the country stars that have met, he has the greatest rapport with fans. The consensus of his fan base is that he is so nice and he is so normal! As an aspiring songwriter, I want to thank you for this article, which is a spectacular learning tool for those of us who love and write country music. Remember why we write: to have fun, to get to know other people we would not be able to otherwise, and to make the world a better place. Dierks Bentley has accomplished all of these things in his short lifetime, and I wish him all the best in his quest to make fans like me happy for years to come! (little_white_tank_topped_miss)

  • http://www.dierks.com lauraprrsh

    dierks is avery cool friend to have an ilove being in his fan club ihope dierks will like the certificate award for miles an music for kids from me dierksis awonderful person allways dierks musican videos are so awesome an on tv dierks is soawesome to be around an he has awonderful family an im happy to be apart of dierks fan club from his number 1one fan member lauraprrsh iallways love going to nashville to seedierksbentley he is my favorite an my hero an my best friend the world is a better place because dierks bentley is init dierks keep playing good musican videos best wishes to you an youre family an to the band is allso great too thanks for leting me seeyouin person anihope to get to seeyou again -emailme ibe thinking of you allyouallhaveagreat summer this year from lauraprrsh

  • http://www.dierks.com lauraprrsh

    ireally enjoy allof dierks music an videos an concerts he is areal cool friend tohaveas a fanmember he willallways be the greatest country singer ever hit nasville tn an agood person anhehas agreat band an ilove to seethem when ever iget achaceto iwish icould seethem alot in person but heis so busy withevery thing ihave allways dream ed to be in dierks fan club an iam happy iam he willalways be my favorite an my best friend its been great to be in his video feel that fire for the frist time an ihope some day ican be in his video again itis so wonderful to get tobe apart of some thing with dierks bentley ireallyat mire him an im pround of dierks allways dierks willallways be blessed becausehe is the very bset in country music allways an he wiil get aspecail certificate award from his fan member lauraprrsh for miles an music for kids this year 2009 dierks the world is abetter placebcausedierks bentley isinit heis the greatest

  • katie elizabeth

    Im so glad dierks is getting the recognition he deserves. He is awesome. He will be the next superstar of Country Music. .. I am going to try my best to buy this magazine. I LOVE YOU DIERKS!!!!!!!!!

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