(PHOTO: James Minchin III)
The first time, he called from Nashville, just before rehearsal with his band. And he happened to mention he was wearing a t-shirt broadcasting his musical taste: “My Grass Is Blue.” He did part two of the interview on his tour coach in Milwaukee, noting with pride that the bus’s odometer showed he’d racked up nearly a million miles getting to his fans, and admitting to a slight margarita hangover from celebrating an ACM nomination the day before.
Talking with Dierks Bentley – no matter which aspects of his career have his attention on a given day – you get the sense he not only knows what’s expected of him as a major contemporary country star, and honors those commitments, but also cares a great deal about music that has little to do with the charts. He’s good enough, smart enough and broad-minded enough to make an admirable career of having it both ways.
Bentley couldn’t see a place for himself in the mainstream country landscape when he arrived in Nashville in the mid-1990s, and gravitated instead toward comparatively obscure pickers and singers sweating it out in bluegrass dives and honky-tonks downtown.
“It wasn’t just the music – the whole community really took me in and embraced me,” he recounts. “I started going to these pickin’ parties and hanging out with these people that knew more about Haggard and Jones and Johnny Cash and Tom T. Hall and Faron Young and were making me mixtapes. I became a complete Del-head, and I was following the Del McCoury Band to places like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. But through bluegrass, I got back into country music … So that’s what helped me find my voice and foundation.”
Since then, he’s pulled off a balance between scoring contemporary country hits – like the bedroom ballad “Come A Little Closer” and the rollicking neo-trad number “Free And Easy (Down The Road I Go)” – and staying connected to the acoustic roots scene like no other performer of his generation.
Five albums in, Bentley made a risky move – tantamount to ducking out of the mainstream country spotlight for a year or so – by releasing his sleek string band album, Up On The Ridge. The less obvious, but no less significant difference between it and the rest of Bentley’s catalog was he’d stocked the album with quite a few outside songs.
That would have been business as usual for almost anybody else, but his name had been on the lion’s share of the songs he’d cut, including every one of his singles. And here he was recording a late ‘70s folk ballad of Dylan’s and a down-and-out Kristofferson number, along with a song from the first couple of Americana songwriting, Buddy and Julie Miller, two co-written by hillbilly tunesmith Shawn Camp and one Bentley co-wrote with progressive bluegrass giant Tim O’Brien.
Turning to other sources wasn’t just a one-time thing; Home, Bentley’s reentry to mainstream country territory, is the fruit of an especially exhaustive song search. “I wrote about 70 songs,” he says, “which I’ve never written that many songs for a record in my life. But I also listened to, like, thousands of outside songs, and I made a commitment to cut as many outside songs as possible.”