Dierks Bentley - Are you ready for the country?
Like a lot of music-crazed friends of mine have done over the years, he showed up just a little bit late, because he was curious to hear -- no, needed to hear -- that new album by Shooter Jennings, Waylon's son, which was just out. And while he was picking up a copy at a nearby record store, he'd gotten a little involved in browsing through the racks. It happens. You know how it is. People have been noticing the Waylon influence -- in both the sound and the point of view -- on his own new single, "Lot Of Leavin' Left To Do". When people occasionally express surprise that a country singer started out in Phoenix, Arizona, he reminds them Phoenix was where Waylon first recorded on his own, and spent a long time there playing live at J.D.'s nightclub, before becoming widely known. At 29, Dierks Bentley has a handle on a lot of country music's history. He already has his own considerable history of playing in lots of small joints; if you'd caught him as little as two years ago, he probably would have been playing honky-tonk in a bar on Nashville's Lower Broadway, or leading a pick-up bluegrass band at somebody's picnic. He still leads his own steady traveling band today, a real one with general contributions and shared experiences. And his name is on nearly all the songs he records. As a writer, Bentley does quite a bit of collaborating; only a busy touring schedule -- well over 200 dates in the past year -- has kept him from doing more, which apparently has gotten a little frustrating. "I should be writing with more people, branching out," he claims. "Jim Lauderdale wants to write with me. Marty Stuart wants to, Rodney Crowell, Radney Foster. I've seen all these guys on the road and they say, 'Let's do this!' But I can't find time now. I may get to a certain place where I can maybe take a breath -- to get to write a song with Radney, have a beer with Jim. Even if we never got to a song and just sat around and talked, that would be just as important as an end result, just hangin'. I did have the chance to hang with Rodney Crowell, and we did write one song, but just to be in his presence, man, is just so cool!" As we talked for several hours in early March at an apartment-like office in the middle of Nashville's Music Row -- about the music Bentley makes, and why it sounds the way it does, and what he wants it to do for audiences -- what struck me most was the degree to which his musical interests and choices were essentially indistinguishable from those of many artists who have been profiled in these pages over the years. The cover song he chose for his 2003 self-titled Capitol Records debut was Buddy & Julie Miller's "My Love Will Follow You"; the friendly "guest band" invited to share a key track on that Capitol release -- and also on his new one, Modern Day Drifter (due out May 10) -- is the Del McCoury Band. Where this guy differs most strikingly, of course, is that his first album went platinum the week we had our talk, having already yielded a #1 single ("What Was I Thinkin'") and two other top-tier country chart hits. For that reason alone, some reading these words may well wind up writing letters to the editor suggesting this author is deluded, deaf, or somehow has been conned. But perhaps it might be possible to let the facts, the story and, most of all, the man's music, speak for themselves. It is a sure-enough fact that Dierks Bentley has sold a million copies of his self-titled disc, not 5,000 or 50,000, and that those sales did not occur three or four decades ago -- a magical interval that seems to make massive acceptance by the country audience quaint enough to be unthreatening to "alternative" status. His sales have occurred in today's country chart mainstream. He's pulled it off as an artist working out a fresh synthesis of hard-hitting honky-tonk sounds, bluegrass sensibility, and a rocker's flair, and so his level of success just might be one more indicator among many that in the battle to get more country back in country, we've been winning. Sometimes it's time to take "yes" for an answer. Assuming, or demanding, a permanently unbridgeable and yawning gap between Americana and mainstream country can turn into its own sort of yawn. If Bentley is more focused -- and more comfortable than some in saying, without shilly-shallying, that he wants to "bring my music to as many people as possible, and do as well as I can" -- that doesn't make him the slightest bit different from country icons from Hank to Merle to Cash to Loretta, or from most self-knowing and frank performers who get in front of an audience in the first place. But what he means by "my music" may surprise you. For one thing, Bentley has been pretty dubious about the direction those "slick Nashville sounds" have been taking. And he can be passionately articulate about it. "Oh, yes; I guess maybe I take country music way too seriously at times, because I hear some stuff that gets under my skin and I'm saying, 'That's not country!'" Bentley admits. "I try to take a step back and say, 'Man, it's just music, there on that video playing on CMT' -- though it's just the furthest thing from country that I've heard in my entire life! "So I do make a conscious effort when we're in the studio to keep it tied to the roots, as far as instrumentation goes. On 'What Was I Thinkin'', we got a sound where you can hear the individual instruments; we didn't want another poppy love song. The steel guitar's turned up loud, and you can hear a banjo, and that dobro in there, and there's a mandolin and a fiddle. That shit's cool if done the right way. I don't just want a little 'dobro part' in there; I want to hear that tone through the whole song. "And I push the instrumental harmonies up louder than most people; that's the bluegrass mentality. I want the instruments and musicians to be equal -- not me and people 'supporting' me." Yet even with that instrumentation, and with banjo sometimes playing a key role in propelling the music, nobody's going to confuse the electrified sounds on Modern Day Drifter with bluegrass. "No," Dierks clarifies, "you don't hear, specifically, 'bluegrass' on the record. It's part of the production, and the production mentality. I'm applying that to making a country record. A big part of the sound is my steel player, Gary Morris; there's a real Bakersfield-Southern Cal aggressive tone to his playing, which you don't always hear in town here, and which I think gives this record more edge and angst." Bentley has a lot of working-band friends on the Texas-Oklahoma honky-tonk scene, ranging from fairly well-known names such as Cross Canadian Ragweed to thus-far more regional acts including Wade Bowen, Stoney Larue, and the Randy Rogers Band. These are the artists with whom Bentley most identifies, more than many of the other rising mainstream acts of the last couple of years with whom he seemingly competes. "Dudes down there that have heard 'Got A Lot Of Leavin'' [his new single] have been saying things like, 'It's got that Waylon sound on it, and the guitars are rammed up your ass, and there's great Tele playing and that's it; there's not a lot of crap on there.' And we had requests for tracks from the first CD from DJs who only play 'Texas Music,' too. So I knew that we've been doing something right, because they have a good gauge down there for what's cool country-wise, and what's sappy and pandering." But all of this talk about what sound he's gotten -- and his own descriptions are quite accurate -- begs two questions. First, to the degree these sonic ideas are similar to those being worked outside the major-label Music Row system, how is it that they're able -- or, as some would put it, are being allowed -- to work inside that system? Part of the answer, just as in the "Great Credibility Scare" of the mid-1980s that saw a generation of mavericks and neo-traditionalists signed to major labels, is timing. "Yeah," Bentley concurs. "Times got lean, and this town kind of had to branch out and take some chances and risks, and try some people who are doing their own thing. And I think that's probably the reason that they are." But it took a long time for that timing to be right, and for Bentley to be ready when the moment came. Thus the second question: Who is this guy, anyway, who wanted to make these sorts of sounds and bring them to a massive audience? It's not a story that begins with particularly rural roots, romanticized or otherwise -- and certainly not southern roots, for Bentley grew up in Phoenix. "And I did not grow up in a musical family," he adds. "There is no church choir or family band story to tell. But my dad loved country music; we'd drive to school and he'd have Strait on." (That's the same Texas honky-tonkin' George Strait for whom Bentley has opened dozens of arena shows in the past year and a half.) "When I was 13, I discovered the electric guitar, distortion pedals and Marshall amps. At that age, you want to play power chords, and Van Halen, and Whitesnake -- and there was all that terrible '80s hair-band music. So years of possible musical integrity were wasted listening to that stuff! But that's what you listen to." He played with some schoolmates in a garage band that never got out of the garage. Then one friend introduced him to the records of Hank Williams Jr. "And I thought, 'Holy Crap!' That's played with such ego, and it's so loud, it's great. It's rock music, but it's also country. Hank Jr.'s a bridge; he takes people from that world and brings them into this one. All of the little pieces of what sounded good to me in singing and songwriting just clicked; this was, I thought, where my voice fits. The big sound, the voice -- that was it. Like a lightning bolt." And so as he turned 19, with no performance experience to speak of, Bentley simply headed for Nashville, to get into country music somehow or other, to be a country singer someday. "I spent three years just going downtown to Tootsie's and Roberts, absorbing and watching," he recalls. "I couldn't have told you what I was doing. I'd written a bunch of crappy songs that I could play and sing at the same time, but I had a long way to go. I sucked!" When the pointlessness of day jobs such a cleaning golf balls became obvious, he began to focus on ones that would get him closer to the music and the music business, to see how it worked. One of those was a research and production assistant job at the old cable Nashville Network. "Ten bucks an hour to watch videos of Faron Young and George Jones, and see how they entertained crowds and sang!" he marvels. "I was doing research for the documentary A Century Of Country. I made money and it also fed the disease. As a P.A. holding lights up, and getting coffee, I got to be around Chet Atkins, and then Eddy Arnold. And I'd pick people up at the airport who were coming in to be interviewed; Charlie Daniels was one." It was the height of the post-Garth Brooks explosion "hat act" era, and if some of Brooks' showmanship appealed, most of what was going on struck the young wannabe as both sappy pop and not something he was in any way built to be part of. He was still trying to write songs and play guitar better, but he'd about given up on being a country music performer in that climate. In the meantime, on Tuesday nights he'd be at the world home base of bluegrass, the Station Inn, catching the practiced musicians who play as "The Sidemen" attacking grass, of course, but also Merle Haggard and traditional country. He'd had, he admits, some preconceptions that bluegrass was "old people's music," but what he found was passion, energy, and commitment without pretense. Guys his own age hanging out there -- particularly fiddler Jason Carter, bass player and fellow Arizonian Mike Bub, and mando ace Ronnie McCoury of the Del McCoury Band -- took him in, handing him tapes that show how a "G Run" works. The taught him harmonies, but he was most taken with their relation to each other and Del, and with their willingness to reach out to the likes of a Steve Earle. On Wednesday nights, Bentley was catching a different "real band" around town: the hard roots-rock outfit of John Hartford's son Jamie, which then, as now, was out there in the Nashville trenches playing with energy and singing with soul. Jamie's working-guy love ballad "Good Things Happen When You're Around" is Bentley's personal favorite on his new album; Alison Krauss sings harmony on the chorus. Pickers from the bluegrass and rock haunts joined him for gigs around Nashville, and they appeared on his little-heard 1999 indie release Don't Leave Me In Love. The disc shows a bluegrass/honky-tonk/rock blend in the making, with more of an outright bluegrass tinge than would be the case later; the vocals sometimes show the recognizable influence of Lester Flatt's amiable lilt. A couple self-penned songs that later appeared on his Capitol debut ("Bartenders, Barstools, Barmaids" and "Whisky Tears") first showed up there. Next came a publishing deal with Sony Tree, which meant he could now work on his music exclusively. Executive Arthur Buenahora teamed him with another young songwriter, Brett Beavers, who was, not insignificantly, a working bass player. Today, Beavers is not only Bentley's regular writing partner and a songwriting presence on his own, he's also the leader of Lee Ann Womack's touring band. Bentley and Beavers have become the sort of writing team that can finish each other's sentences, and songs. Their close working relationship is the reason Bentley's songs on Modern Day Drifter can be collaborations, and still be personal. "I called Brett one day when I was in a real bad spot, after a breakup with a girlfriend," Bentley recalls, "and said, 'Man, I just wish my heart would break; this needs to be done with.' So one of my favorite songs on the first Capitol record, and the first one we wrote, was 'Wish It Would Break'. Phrases sometimes just come to you. I just said, one time more recently, 'My favorite kind of beer is domestic, light and cold' -- and Brett started doing work on that!" (Their song by that name is a hooky comic change-up on Modern Day Drifter.) Capitol saw the team as one to take a chance on, signing Bentley -- with Beavers as producer -- for that first major-label outing with all the hits (and more country sounds than the single hits alone show). They found a level of label support for the themes, sound synthesis and self-penned approach that surprised even them. "You know how you hear people say, I finally got the record I wanted to make -- after ten years? Well, I got to do that on the first record," he says. "It was going to be an album especially for guys like me, who liked Waylon, liked Buck, liked Ray Price -- and liked to drink beer and weren't afraid of that!" Music Row virtually always likes to see a variety of songwriters get tracks on a major release, and Nashville songwriters clamor to get on those releases (even more so today, given the shrinking number of major labels). When the inevitable question about all those original songs arose at Capitol, the answer was again positive: "Larry Willoughby of A&R there just answered, 'He writes his own stuff, like Hank Williams did -- just trust them, working together.'" It wouldn't be difficult to imagine, nor would it be unprecedented, more effort to control what Bentley put on the second record, in pursuit of topping the first. But instead he's found that he and Beavers are simply trusted to do it again. Modern Day Drifter has emerged, in effect, as a theme album, full of songs with different takes on a guy's response to leaving a relationship -- or being left. (It's clear enough in talking with Bentley that he's experienced his share of both situations.) The most likely singles on this one are far from retreads of "How Am I Doin'" or "My Last Name" from the first one. There is, for instance, a strong sensuous, Conway Twitty style ballad, "Come A Little Closer", that's as far from pandering to par-taying saloon guys as "Lot Of Leavin'" is to those Music Row focus-group-targeted "soccer moms." On both albums, Bentley employs a number of the best session players in Nashville, rather than simply augmenting his road band. Such a choice which would not be so typical in the alternative country universe, but Bentley has specific reasons for doing so. "It's because those guys are perfect in that setting -- creative geniuses," he explains. "They create all day long; when I have a new song I want ideas for, they're the best. That doesn't mean the guys in my band aren't great musicians, but they're 'Go out there on the road, get it done,' which is a different thing. Those guys [the session players] are now used to working in a studio; they can't get a crowd to drink tequila and raise hell, entertain a crowd. And my band knows how to do that!" That road band consists of pedal steel guitarist Gary Morse (who does play on the CD), Steve Misamore on drums, Rod Janzen on guitar and background vocals, and Robbie Harrington on bass. "When you're out on the road, and reach places where this is the big night they've been waiting for, sometimes for a year, and they've spent that money, it's a huge deal to them," Bentley emphasizes. "So I want to give those people the best show imaginable, and let them forget things that are going on a little bit -- with the little bit of extra effort that takes. "So I may be the worst musician in the band, but I'm the band leader -- and if there's a problem with it, you go through me. We hang together offstage, and when we go onstage it's not going to be some fake smiling show. We're real. "I had one day off the other day, and was going to be seeing this girl, but I got a call from the bus driver and tour manager about a problem with the bus, so I spent an hour or two sorting out that. There are people who get a record deal and let others around them do those things. You walk on the bus the next day and everybody is smiling at you, but you don't know the real story. I want to know what's going on in every aspect of the whole deal." I happened to catch, over a year ago, Bentley's first arena-size show, ever, opening for George Strait at Nashville's Gaylord Arena -- just across the street from some of the small clubs he'd been playing a few years before. He charged to the stage and was soon turning the cavernous place into his band-size saloon. "That's the goal!" he affirms. "I've learned from George; he makes you feel like you're in a Texas dancehall, and you want to get up and dance in the aisles. In our case, we try to make you feel like you're in a little rowdier country-rock bar. A few weeks ago, we played the Kemper Arena at Kansas City for 20,000 people, and that same night we drove to play a frat house for 200 people. With the same show." Bentley and his band did 35 such arena shows last year. He says they'll now be focusing on small-to-midsize venues for what could be the next several years. "That separates me, to a degree, from a lot of people in Nashville, and on the charts," he acknowledges. "And that's sort of the same reason that I wanted to talk to No Depression magazine. Not just because you didn't ask me about my dog. It's not stupid for me to do this -- because we do play places where I go to the owner and say, 'Did you ever have a country band in here before?' And five out of seven times it's, 'No.'" Not that he doesn't hope to have his own arena shows someday -- but he's sure, right now, that they're years off, if they ever happen. That he'll get there would be no surprise. Nor would it be surprising to see his music progress from its current emphasis on "young guy" material to songs where all that partying brings a price, or to country story-songs that look at the woman's experience on the same terms as the man's (and in the same song). You can get that from something he said about the George of influence that came before Mr. Strait. "I once listened to George Jones because my Dad liked him -- but now he's my favorite because I do," Bentley says. "I understand the warble of his voice, I understand his phrasing, I understand the breaks....He hears a song, and it goes through his ears, to his heart, and it comes out his mouth. After whiskey, cocaine, heartbreak -- he pretty much owns his heart. "Add lyrics to that, and that's country music." ND senior editor Barry Mazor is at work on a book about artists who have been underestimated for not fitting in with over-hardened genre definitions.