Dierks Bentley: Can You Feel Me?
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.”