Dierks Bentley's 'Up On the Ridge' a career twist and return
Published by Peter Cooper on June 12, 2010
"Seven years into a music career that has been steadily gaining momentum with rock-tinged contemporary country radio hits, Bentley has just issued a mostly acoustic, bluegrass-tinged album called Up On the Ridge. It is both a departure and a homeward return for Bentley, whose radio singles have been mostly amped-up affairs but whose primary musical inspirations are acoustic players who perform at his favorite club, Nashville’s Station Inn.
“In Nashville, it’s a constant game of momentum and trying to climb up one more rung, and you have to lock in to one thing and then beat everyone over the head with a certain brand you’re trying to sell,” Bentley said. “But you also have to remember why you moved to town. You start asking yourself, ‘Am I leaving behind my best music? Am I challenging myself?’”
These days, Bentley is challenging himself.
Teaming with producer Jon Randall Stewart — a virtuoso musician best known for his work with Emmylou Harris and for co-writing the Brad Paisley/Alison Krauss hit “Whiskey Lullaby” — Bentley brought acoustic music masters including Krauss, Del McCoury, Tim O’Brien, Chris Thile and Sam Bush into the studio and created a song set that has already won raves from USA Today, The Washington Post, Music Row, People and other publications.
Billboard country chart manager Wade Jessen called the album “an achievement.” But Jessen also called it “off the menu” for radio programmers.
“It’s going to scare the bejeezus out of country radio,” Jessen said. “I hope I’m wrong about that. Here’s a guy that is front-and-center, that has the fans’ attention. In a perfect world, if he had one or two really big hits from this album, that could make a ripple in this town. People could go, ‘Wow, people have responded to intelligent songwriting and basic acoustic instrumentation.’”
‘It was time’
Such fine things have indeed happened in the past. In 2003, the Dixie Chicks were having hits with plaintive, acoustic-based material from an album called Home, right up until the time lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President George W. Bush and programmers reacted by immediately removing the Chicks from the popular airwaves. And the most obvious template for Up On the Ridge is Emmylou Harris’ 1980 set Roses in the Snow, an album that introduced Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice and others to country radio listeners and helped set into motion the neo-traditionalist movement of the 1980s. But 1980 . . . that’s three decades, or roughly 1 and 1/2 Taylor Swifts ago.
“I’ve had people around me say, ‘You’re going to have to be comfortable with the fact that you might be removing yourself from the country radio world for a little bit,” Bentley said. “And I’m not comfortable with that. I love being on the radio. I love playing big shows, in front of large crowds. But the truth is, it’s the most ‘country’ record I’ve made. And it was time to make a record like this, to throw myself into it completely and go on faith.”
Thus far, the whole thing seems to be working. The title track is the album’s first single, and it is now among the top 30 Billboard Hot Country Singles after seven weeks on the charts. That’s a pace akin to many of Bentley’s earlier hits, but “Up On the Ridge” is also by far the song most similar in sound and structure to the singer-songwriter’s past efforts.
“The question was, ‘How do we create an acoustic records that Dierks’ fans will dig?’” said Stewart, who writes and records under the name “Jon Randall” and also occasionally answers to “J.R.,” “Randy” and “Whispers.” “It was actually a lot of pressure, and I didn’t want to be the guy that ruined his career. But we just finished doing some touring, and it was really cool to watch people in these honky-tonks hearing this music for the first time and being really receptive. They loved it.”
‘Authentic and cool’
Bentley became aware and enamored of acoustic music at the age of 19, when he and his fake I.D. slipped inside the Station Inn. He was a Vanderbilt student at the time, and he had heard plenty of country music but practically nothing that leaned toward bluegrass, country’s banjo-picking, fiddle-wielding, all-acoustic cousin. At the Station Inn, he heard The Sidemen, a band of accomplished players that included Terry Eldredge, who would become one of Bentley’s biggest influences.
“I didn’t even know what bluegrass was, but I recognized something authentic and cool,” Bentley said. “I remember seeing guys on stage wearing baggy jeans and white sneakers, with big belt buckles. I went, ‘It’s obviously not about posturing.’ But the combined power of those instruments and the vibe of the whole room made it feel like the coolest spot in town.”
Each of Bentley’s four previous studio albums featured a bluegrass-rooted song, but the singles released to radio featured layered, contemporary country arrangements. And the live shows have been sweaty, run-around-the-stage affairs from the beginning. Last year, Bentley’s touring show was — like nearly every major country star’s concert — an exercise in successful repetition. As with Broadway shows, the goal was to do the same thing quite well each night.
“You’ve got a lighting director, guitar techs, a video director and you’re locked in to doing the same thing in order for it to work,” he said. “Once the show starts and it’s running, you can’t step off of it. There’s no way to ad-lib. And people expect a live show to have all those bells and whistles. You never want to lose somebody’s attention, and you want to dictate what your crowd is going through. It’s scary to step away from that and open up the show to anything being possible, like taking requests and even dead air. When I’m touring the acoustic show, I’m trusting that when country fans hear these instruments played properly, they’re going to dig ’em.”
This summer, Bentley will do some festival shows that include his usual band, complete with full drums, electric bass and electric guitar. And he’ll do some shows with a band that can present the Up On the Ridge material as well as acoustic versions of many past hits. As for the fall, well, he’s not sure.
“We’ll see what kind of interest this album produces, and we’ll get off the grid a little and let the music decide where it is going to go,” he said. “And I have no idea what the next album will be like.”
Already, the music is going to places Bentley hasn’t been before. CBS Sunday Morning is profiling Bentley and the story of his album, and Up On the Ridge is getting a critical reception beyond anything he’s released until now.
“This may not win any CMA Awards, but I think there’s a Grammy in his future,” Billboard’s Jessen said.
The bluegrass world is watching with interest as well, because so many stars of the genre are involved and because mainstream exposure to the music often leads to sales booms: Think O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Flatt & Scruggs’ Beverly Hillbillies theme song.
“This could be a big deal for a number of reasons,” said International Bluegrass Music Association executive director Dan Hays. “But there’s a piece of it that’s a little puzzling. For Dierks to want to pull what’s in his heart out and put it on an album and tour with it is a wonderful gesture, but that’s what artists should be doing. That should be the norm, rather than us scratching our heads and wondering, ‘How does this happen?’”
But people do wonder. Sometimes Bentley ponders the practical wisdom of his choice, though he doesn’t question the artistic vision or the finished product.
It tickles him to no end to hear Tim O’Brien’s harmony vocal and mandolin on “You’re Dead to Me,” or Del McCoury’s soaring vocal presence on the album’s acoustic version of U2’s “Pride (In The Name Of Love).” And he figures that if he has stepped off one escalator, he may have found one that heads to what is, for now at least, a more interesting floor."
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