From Down At The Station Inn To Up On The Ridge, Dierks Bentley’s Bluegrass Roots Run Deep.
By Larry Nager
Dierks Bentley’s bluegrass journey began when he arrived at the Station Inn. He was a 19-year-old country-loving Arizona kid when he wandered into Nashville’s legendary bluegrass hole in the wall. He’d come to town to attend Vanderbilt University (at least that’s what he told his parents), but the reluctant sophomore found his real education—and future career—at the Sidemen’s weekly gigs at the Station Inn.
“I moved to Nashville in 1994,” says Bentley. “I knew at 17, I wanted to do country music. I’d fallen in love with Hank, Jr., and there was something in my body that told me country music was what I was supposed to be playing. And a few years later, I finally moved down here. Nashville was such a big city. I knew about the music, but I’d never been exposed to the business and I was like, ‘Wow, this is totally not what I expected.’ There were just a lot of people trying to follow in Garth Brooks’ wake. I was a huge Garth fan, but it wasn’t really my thing and I wasn’t sure how I fit in.”
So when he walked through the Station Inn’s beat-up front door and paid his $5, he remembers, “I was looking to learn. I wasn’t trying to draw attention. I was as green as could be. I was trying to find someone or something just to latch on to so I could try to better myself, find my path.”
The Sidemen grew out of a jam session at Bean Blossom’s bluegrass festival in 1989 by young musicians including Terry Smith, Terry Eldredge, Steve Thomas, and Billy Rose who were backing the Grand Ole Opry’s first generation bluegrass artists Bill Monroe, Jim & Jesse, and the Osborne Brothers. It was an occasional thing, with a floating cast of pickers until Ronnie McCoury relocated to Nashville in advance of his dad moving there and joined the group. According to former Sidemen member Mike Bub, “When Ronnie came down in ’92, the band started playing Tuesday nights at the Station Inn. When we initially started the Sidemen, nobody knew who we were. Not long after that was when Dierks came to town to go to Vandy, and he stumbled in there one night with his buddies.”
“The second I walked in the door I felt like I’d been transported into a totally different part of Nashville, watching these guys onstage and seeing how much fun they were having and how young they were,” Bentley remembers. It was a life-changing experience, he says. “I’d never been exposed to bluegrass before. I thought it was like Hee Haw!, which I love. I knew Roy Clark played the banjo on Hee Haw! and I thought that was bluegrass. But I didn’t realize how relevant and how cool and how powerful that music was until I walked in there. It wasn’t just the Sidemen; it wasn’t just those guys; it was the whole room, the whole community, the whole vibe. It was just so much fun—great songs, great musicians. I became a fixture, a regular from that day on. For about seven years I was there every Tuesday night.”
In retrospect, it was an all-star band featuring many of that generation’s best young players. Resonator guitar player Gene Wooten and fiddler Jimmy Campbell have passed on, but the other Sidemen all went on to play major roles in shaping today’s bluegrass music.
It was exactly what Bentley was looking for. “I fell right into that community. And I knew what I’d found. It wasn’t like I was giving up country music, but I was just trying to find something to latch onto to find my path. And I felt I did when I saw those guys, ’cause they were singing old country songs as well as bluegrass songs. They were singing songs I recognized and songs I didn’t, and they were just having so much fun. That’s how it started for me.”
He was soon spreading the word at Vanderbilt, says Bub. “Every week he would bring friends or tell girls, ‘Hey, meet us down at the Station Inn.’ And all of a sudden, it just mushroomed from just people in the know and bluegrass fans to all these college kids. And back then you could smoke at the Station, so it was a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other and all the Vandy kids came to party down there. We had a big college following and I attribute it to Dierks and his friends. We had several generations of Vanderbilt kids; the next group that came in would learn about it and start coming. We had a really good run of about five or six years there.”
It wasn’t long before Bentley wanted in on the stage action. “He was there to spectate, but secretly he was learning how to play,” claims Bub. Bentley wasn’t alone. Future Grascal Jamie Johnson had also come to Nashville to become a country star when he too found his way to the Station Inn. They became friends. “We were both nobodies, but we were nobodies together,” recalls Johnson. “We’d sit there and wait for them to call us up. We just enjoyed watching those guys, some of the most talented people anywhere.”
The club added its own magic and “sweat-soaked terror,” adds Johnson. “Like the Bluebird Café for a songwriter, this stage, for a bluegrass or a country singer, is the same intimidation. I thought I was seeing stadium lights shining on me when I stood on the stage of the Station Inn for the first time.”
“It was jut a fertile training ground and an inspiration for them,” says Bub. “We were crazy and you never knew who would show up to see the Sidemen. I mean Doc Watson came in one night…George Clooney…Vince Gill would come and sit in with us. Bill Monroe came in one night. Everybody knew about it. People would plan their vacations so they could be here on a Tuesday night and come see us. We had this thing where anything could happen after 11 o’clock. We would play ‘The Dobro Rhumba’ and it would be chaos after that.”
Johnson and Bentley became honorary Sidemen. “Terry would call us up, and it was pretty rough. We’d talk about it after, ‘Oh, I didn’t do so well.’” Jamie’s feature was Ernest Tubb’s “Driving Nails In My Coffin,” which his idols the Osborne Brothers also recorded. Bentley, who would eventually have a number one hit with “Lot Of Leavin’ Left To Do,” often sang another “leavin” song, “Leavin’s Heavy On My Mind.” A friendly competition developed, says Sidemen fan Ann Soyars.
“There was a bunch of college kids that loved the Sidemen and loved Jamie Johnson and they had T-shirts made, ‘Jamie Johnson Fan Club.’ Dierks saw that one night,” Ann recalls. “And he said, ‘Look at that. He’s got T-shirts. I don’t have T-shirts.’” Soyars took the hint and made T-Shirts with his picture on the front and printed on the back was: “No. 1 Fan of Dierks Bentley, Future CMA Winner.” She also made one for his mother: “Mom of Future CMA Winner.” Later, after he won the 2005 CMA Horizon Award, Soyars says Bentley’s mom asked how she’d predicted it. “I told her I just knew. I saw it in him.”
Bentley first heard country music on his family’s car radio in Phoenix. “My dad loved Hank Williams. He loved George Strait and Randy Travis. But then I got into electric guitar at 13.” A few years later, hearing Hank, Jr., shifted him from rock back to country music. When the young “hat acts” (Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Dwight Yoakam, and Garth Brooks) hit in the early ’90s, Bentley was a fan.
“I was hooked. I was way into modern country music back in ’91-’92. I was buying CD after CD of country stuff and that kind of burned out on me when I got to town. And then through bluegrass I kind of rediscovered real country music, ’cause the Sidemen were playing Osborne Brothers songs. Is it bluegrass or country? I don’t know. Those guys were working when there wasn’t such a big gap between the two. And Terry Eldredge singing those George Jones songs, and Haggard songs, Faron Young, Ray Price. I listened to those guys, and I went back and got way into that music.”
“I didn’t even know he played or sang,” says Ronnie McCoury. “Next thing you know, he’s playing guitar and singing, and then he started getting some gigs. He was playing regularly at Market Street Brewery on Second Avenue. He’s a real hard worker.” Bentley was gigging all over town, solo or with his banjo-playing cousin from Colorado, Avery Ogden, and hiring his Sidemen buddies when gigs paid well enough. He was also moving into more commercial country. He took over Wednesdays at Wolfy’s on Lower Broadway after Jamie Hartford, another major Bentley influence, ended his residency there. Bentley also had a day job at The Nashville Network (TNN), archiving vintage performances and studying them like training films.
Instead of college, he applied himself to his new curriculum, sitting in with the Sidemen, playing his own gigs, studying old films and recordings, writing songs, and even taking mandolin lessons from Vanderbilt faculty member Butch Baldassari. His hard work paid off. Bentley signed a publishing deal, the country industry’s typical first step in getting a record deal. In 2001, he released an independent CD, Don’t Leave Me In Love, and in 2003, he signed with Capitol Records.
So far, that’s the typical Nashville success story. But this is where things are different. Ordinarily, for that all-important first album, country artists with bluegrass pedigrees distance themselves from their pasts, diving head first into the mainstream. They rationalize that, once they’re securely established, then they’ ll bring out the banjos. But his 2003 Capitol debut album, Dierks Bentley, was filled with bluegrass touches by Nashville pickers Glen Duncan and Shad Cobb on fiddles, Randy Kohrs on resonator guitar, and Bryan Sutton on guitar, mandolin, and banjo. One of the album’s singles was “My Last Name,” co-written with bluegrass-rooted singer/songwriter Harley Allen. Guaranteeing he got his point across, Bentley closed the album with the pure bluegrass of the Del McCoury Band backing him on his original “Train Travelin.” That gutsy move didn’t surprise his friends.
“That’s something I just love about that guy. He has kind of a no-fear grasp on life,” says Jon Randall Stewart, longtime buddy and producer of Dierk’s new album, Up On The Ridge. “I’ve always kind of made decisions that way, just on my gut, on what I love,” says Bentley. “I’m not too good at planning. I’m not a mad scientist, as far as like over-thinking stuff. I just did what l love to do.”
His mainstream career was up and running, but he continued to fly his bluegrass colors on side projects such as the Grammy-winning Livin’ Lovin’ Losin: Songs Of The Louvin Brothers, an all-star tribute on which he duets with Harley Allen on “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby.” He hired the Sidemen to play his first fan club party at Fan Fair in 2003, and when his Dierks Bentley album sold a million copies, he gave a platinum album to Station Inn owner J.T. Gray. The follow-up, 2005’s Modern Day Drifter, featured more bluegrass touches and another full-tilt finale with Del and the boys, “Good Man Like Me.” It too went platinum. That same year, he fulfilled a lifelong dream, becoming a member of the Opry. Through it all, success never went to his head. He could still be found sitting in with friends at the Station Inn, Bluebird Café, and the honky-tonks of Lower Broadway and Second Avenue. “He hasn’t changed, personally,” says Soyars, who along with Lin Barber, now books bands at the Station Inn. “He was nice and kind to me from the day I met him and still is.”
Back to Bluegrass
But after the platinum records, sold-out tours, and seven number-one singles, there remained the unfinished business of that bluegrass project he’d wanted to make since his Station Inn days. Following his sixth Capitol album, Feel That Fire (which true to form, ended with the pure bluegrass of “Last Call,” co-written with Ronnie McCoury), Bentley began to think more seriously about his bluegrass album. But he discovered that once you get the clout to do whatever you want in Nashville, you’re usually too busy keeping your massive organization up and running to actually get it done.
“I knew it was something I was always going to do, but it was just waiting for the moment to feel right. It’s tough when you’re out here and you’ve got to constantly try to keep this thing rolling and you’ve got dates planned years in advance and it’s a big machine, a big operation. You’ve got bandmembers and crew involved, so it’s hard to find the right time to step away from it, take a break from the road and make a record that you know is also going to lead to a tour that’s going to be a different kind of tour for a year, where you might be playing with different players. It’s hard to find the right time.” But after an especially busy 2009 touring season, he figured he owed it to himself. “I was on the road last year playing amphitheater after amphitheater and I was thinking, ‘You know, it’s time to make this record.’”
For most artists, the hardest part of that decision would be convincing your record label to let you do it. That’s why those side projects often wind up on smaller, bluegrass labels. But he gives credit to Capitol Records Nashville president/CEO Mike Dungan for immediately “getting it.”
“Mike Dungan is like the greatest label head you could have,” Bentley states. “For better or worse, he lets you hang yourself by your own rope. I never, ever, was questioned about it. Now, if I was a label head, I’d probably go, ‘Wait a second. You sure you want to do that Dierks? You sure our format’s gonna get that?’ But I never, ever, got that from Mike.”
There was still one missing piece of the puzzle. Bentley needed the right producer. He found him, literally, right in his own backyard. “We were sitting around having a couple of drinks,” recalls Jon Randall Stewart. “Our little girls are about the same age (the Bentley’s are expecting their second child around Christmas), so we have family nights. And he and I were sitting on the back porch having an after-dinner drink and he just brought it up. As we started talking about it, we just got more and more excited about it and my brain started going and his brain started going.
“The ironic thing is the very first idea we came up with was just so off the charts. It was the Punch Brothers with Del McCoury doing (U2’s) ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love),’” Stewart says, breaking into laughter. “O.K., that’s as far left as we can go, what can we do to pull it back to the center? And what do we do that’s right down the middle?’ And it was really exciting for both us to us to go over and write a song with Tim O’Brien (‘You’re Dead To Me’) and to come up with a bluegrass song that sounds like it’s a hundred years old. So that’s how it came about.”
Bentley and Stewart also wrote the set’s most powerful song, “Down In The Mine”—as lonesome an Eastern Kentucky ballad as two guys from Arizona and Texas could write. Stewart’s wide-ranging experiences in bluegrass and mainstream country enabled him to make Bentley’s wildest ideas real, while keeping it all firmly in the realm of bluegrass and, at the same time, creating something that still sounds like a Dierks Bentley album. “This record wouldn’t have been the record it is without Jon Randall’s participation,” states Dierks. “It probably would have been more of a straight-ahead bluegrass record. It would have been more of me just calling up Larry Cordle and Alison Krauss and Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien and saying, ‘Hey, I’m making this record,’ and picking some standards and trying to write some songs. If I’d have made it seven years ago, it would have been one hundred percent ’grass, but now it’s just become a cool mixture of everything.”
Stewart credits Bentley’s status in both the bluegrass and country music communities for bringing in Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson, and Miranda Lambert (the latter two on Verlon Thompson’s “Bad Angel”). “I thought, ‘You know, we could do this with a couple of country artists and make it really cool.’ And it was Dierks idea: ‘You know what would make it really cool? Have a girl singing on it.’ And in about ten minutes, he had Miranda on the phone, ‘Hey, you wanna come sing on this record?’”
Jon Randall acknowledges that Up On The Ridge hasn’t been as readily accepted by program directors as a mainstream Bentley project. “Everybody just plays it so terribly safe that the bar just gets lower every day and it just makes me crazy. We knew it was going to be a struggle at radio, anytime you attach the word ‘bluegrass,’ as you well know. I made country records, but just having bluegrass in my world was a battle out there for me for years as an artist. But the fact that we got into the top twenty with a song (‘Up On the Ridge’) that Sam Bush was playing slide mandolin on is something to be proud of.” The album also garnered three CMA nominations: Album, Event (for “Bad Angel” with Lambert and Johnson), and Male Vocalist Of The Year.
Pick it Forward
Bentley is quick to credit his producer. “Having Jon Randall, he’s the reason why it really opened itself up to being like totally bluegrass, but also with country elements and everything else. He’s all about breaking rules. ‘Let’s just make a record we love and not worry about having to label it one thing or the other.’”
In that, the two old friends are of one mind, says Stewart. “Here’s a guy from Phoenix, Arizona, who decided, ‘I want to play hockey.’ So, he just puts on some ice skates and joins a team here and starts playing,” says Jon. “And that’s how he does everything. I don’t know any artist in the world who, after their seventh number one, would have taken on a bluegrass project like this. But he decided, ‘This is something I want to do. You only live once. I’m gonna do it.’”
Bentley’s love of physical challenges was part of the attraction to bluegrass. After Up On The Ridge was completed, but before its release, Bentley took the Travelin’ McCourys on a sold-out 25-show tour, augmented by Bentley’s drummer Steve Misamore and steel player Tim Sergent.
“We went coast to coast, Portland to Portland, in a month and a half,” says Ronnie McCoury. The tour’s last show at the Ryman Auditorium was filmed by cable TV’s GAC channel and continues to air in reruns. For Bentley, the tour meant serious woodshedding on bluegrass rhythm guitar. “It’s like a high school or college hockey player suddenly getting a chance to play with the pros, playing with the best of the best,” he says. “You got to have your three Ts—Tune, Timing, and Tone—ready to go when you’ re playing with those guys.”
Bentley went deep into the roots at the 2010 IBMA Awards, opening the show with an all-star bluegrass band doing “Fiddlin’ Around” from Up On The Ridge (released too late for IBMA Awards eligibility this year). He and Jon Randall also performed with Earl, Randy, and Gary Scruggs in the Hall Of Fame tribute to Louise Scruggs, singing “You Are My Flower.”
He’s also brought his campaign for bluegrass and real country music back to where he first heard the music—on the radio. Bentley currently hosts The Thread, a sixty-minute show on Nashville’s WSM radio.
“You can tell he’s genuine, and bluegrass really means something to him,” says Ronnie McCoury. “There’s only one platinum record on the Station Inn walls, and that’s his. He knows where his roots are.”
Bentley sees it all—Up On The Ridge, his radio show, his work with the Travelin’ McCourys, Stewart and the rest of his bluegrass pals—as a way to share what he discovered at the Station Inn so long ago.” It’s so fun for me to get out there, learning so much and introducing my fans to some really kick-ass music, and I love being the host, the ambassador for that. That’s what it took for me to get into bluegrass. I had to go down to the Station Inn and see the Sidemen. It introduced a whole new world to me, and that’s what I’m hoping to do.”