Dierks Bentley Talks Up On The Ridge
If courtesy sold records, Dierks Bentley would be a multi-platinum artist. In the midst of a long string of phone interviews and personal appearances, Bentley began this interview apologizing profusely for being just a few minutes late.
It’s no surprise that he’s fielding so many interview requests, though; Up On The Ridge Bentley’s new album, is his often-requested, long-awaited bluegrass album. Just calling it “bluegrass” is a little misleading, though, as a typical bluegrass album wouldn’t feature Bentley, Del McCoury and the Punch Brothers playing U2’s “Pride (In The Name of Love).” It’s best to let him describe how the initial idea of two separate albums turned into one love letter to acoustic/roots music, due for release on June 8.
SAM GAZDZIAK: We’ve got to talk a little about current events before we jump into the new record. You were just at a big telethon for Nashville [flood relief]. From all the people you’ve talked to, what’s the general feeling among Nashville residents?
DIERKS BENTLEY: It’s great to see them come together. It’s an amazing community. The country community showed how much they care about the Nashville community, and country fans in general showed how much they care about country music and, likewise, Nashville. You feel the love come in.
A lot of money’s been coming in, and that’s been great. The key thing is keeping that awareness up; It’s going to be a long rebuilding process, but I’m really confident.
It’s just such an important deal. The Grand Ole Opry, the face of country music, was under four feet of water. The circle that we all take so much pride in is drying out.
This is possibly the most listened-to format of music in our country, so it seems like there’s a lot of awareness out there, and just keeping that going and taking care of the families that were hit so hard by it.
SG: You had a picture on Twitter of you bailing your house out. How did you fare?
DB: I didn’t lose too much. There was some damage to the house, but nothing like friends I’ve heard about, like Keith Urban and Paisley. A lot of guys lost a lot of gear. [Soundcheck] was the one spot that everyone uses. It’s right off the interstate, easy to get your semi truck in and out of. But I got off real easy.
SG: Going to Up On The Ridge, how long has this idea been kicking around, and how did your plans change from your initial thoughts to the final release?
DB: I knew when I first walked into the Station Inn [when he was 19 and first heard bluegrass] that I loved this music, and I’ve included a bluegrass track at the end of every record that I’ve put out. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to any of my fans; they’re the ones that have been asking for it at the meet and greets.
So I thought last year that I was going to make two records: a country record and a bluegrass record. That’s what got out to the media. But once I started work on the “bluegrass” record, right away, within days, I knew this was not going to be your father’s bluegrass record. This was going to be a totally different deal, and it’s all because I started working with Jon Randall. I was going to make it on my own, but once I asked Jon to do it, it was like we dove into a river that was raging.
We were thinking of ideas left and right, and everything was starting to come together. We weren’t basing it off a blueprint of what you have to do to make a bluegrass record. We were going off of what sounds fun, and what we were going to do to make a good record that excites us.
We wanted to do a Kris Kristofferson song, so why don’t we try to get Kristofferson on it? It just turned out he was playing in town the next weekend. All this stuff started to come together.
With the songwriting, too, I was trying to categorize songs for a country record and songs for a bluegrass record, and we decided to put the best songs on this record. Let’s just find the best songs, and if we want to use drums on some songs, let’s use drums. If we want to use electric bass, we’ll use electric bass. Let’s not worry about trying to keep within these certain parameters.
SG: What kind of feedback have you gotten from the radio side?
DB: I live for country radio; it’s given me my whole life. I’ve been on the road now for six, seven years. Hanging out with DJs is not just the means to an end, to get a song on the radio. A lot of these guys are my friends. I’ve kept those relationships up.
When I made this record, I sent about 20 or 30 guys a couple of tracks and said, “Hey, you might have heard I’m making a different type of record, and I’d love for you to hear the music before you form an opinion of what it might be.” The feedback was really super positive, and they loved it. I took that feedback to the record label and told them they were ready to play this stuff now.
The feedback’s been great, and it means a lot to me, but having a Top 40 hit on this record means more to me than ever before. This record wasn’t made with that in mind. It was made just to be an album in its entirety. This will be an album I’ll print up on vinyl–it will be that type of record for me. Not that the others haven’t been, but there’s a lot of magic on this one.
SG: How did you and Jon go about making U2 a bluegrass band?
DB: We were sitting around drinking some whiskey. Del [McCoury] was going to be on the record, and we wanted to get Del on a different type of song. And I love U2, so we mixed those two things together. [Jon] said, “If we do that, we should probably get the Punch Brothers on it.”
We wanted to get the Punch Brothers on it in the beginning, just because we’re big fans of what they do. The reason it worked is because they are not a bluegrass band, although they’ll do covers of the old bluegrass stuff. They came up with an acoustic version of that song that will stand the test of time. Banjo on a rock song is always going to sound kind of funny, and it might be cheesy, but these guys did it in a way that’s going to last for a long time.
SG: With all the special guests that you have, it would be pretty easy for this to be a real gimmicky kind of album. How did you make this a whole, cohesive thing?
DB: That’s a great question, and it was one of the things that we talked about. The last thing I wanted this was to be was a “Dierks Bentley & Friends” kind of album. It’s my record, but I wanted to get as many of my friends involved–not just the marquee names on the back of the album, but in the liner notes. The musicians on this record are all guys that have played with me downtown in different bars, or guys that I’ve admired when I’ve listened to them live. Every person on this album is someone I’ve always wanted to record with.
With the guests, some of them were pretty thought out. Del McCoury on there was important, and having Alison Krauss was definitely going to happen. “Bad Angel,” though, with Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson, I just loved that song. Jon Randall brought it to my attention, and I was thinking, “How am I going to recreate the song? Who would I ask to be on there?” Well, I’d get Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson, so I called them both up, and they said they’d love to do it.
Chris Stapleton, singing on “Fallin’ For You,” I’ve always loved his voice. Kristofferson singing on it, we were just lucky. Chris Thile sang some of the parts on “Senor” because I love his voice.
There was a lot of talk of, “You should get this person and that person,” and it almost made it too broad, with people outside of our little roots/country/Americana/bluegrass circle. I just said, “Nah, let’s get Sam Bush instead.” I didn’t want to bring in people from the outside. Bluegrass is so broad, country music is so broad, Americana is so broad, I wanted to keep it in this universe. Bringing in people from outside it, I think it would have taken it to that thing you’re talking about.
It’s a really fine line to walk. I’ve heard a few people say that, that I’ve got a lot of guests on it, but it doesn’t sound like a “Dierks & Friends” record.
SG: What’s it been like touring with the Travelin’ McCourys for this tour?
DB: Oh man, they’ve been a total blast. We’re actually touring ahead of the album, which is a little funny. But it’s been great seeing the way country audiences react to this kind of music.
I watched [bluegrass bands] at The Station Inn when I was 19 years old, and I’d never heard bluegrass in my life. I thought it was old people’s music, but I walked in, and there’s guys my age. Actually, three of them are [touring] with me now–Jason Carter, Rob McCoury and Ronnie McCoury. I walked in, heard these guys playing and thought, “Hell, that’s the reason I moved to Nashville, to be around the real deal.” I didn’t want to be around the lights and the smoke and guys who don’t write their own songs and can’t play an instrument.
The band that was playing, they were playing Merle Haggard songs and Lefty Frizzell songs as well as traditional bluegrass songs. They didn’t distinguish between the two. It wasn’t until I got knee-deep in the country world that I saw how it can lean heavily on pop-rock.
I think if you put this music in front of country fans, they’ll love it. They love banjo, they love fiddle. On this tour, my drummer’s not here, and my steel player’s not here, so they’re hearing the backbone of banjo, fiddle and mandolin, and they love it. We’re doing eight or nine of my songs that have been hits, and we’re doing eight songs they haven’t heard before off this new record, and we’re also doing some covers. People have really been digging the show and the music.
It’s been an experimental thing, seeing if it will work. The idea behind this tour was we had the freedom to do what we want, so I told my booking agent to have no venues over 1,000 seats. I only wanted to play small bars, and I didn’t care how much money we lose. This is a once-in-a-lifetime tour.
At the same time, I don’t want to make it too artsy. I wanted to make it a show. The entertainer in me can’t help but want to make sure people have a good time. We’re not going to strand them out there with four songs in a row that they’ve never heard of.
We’re billing this tour as Dierks Bentley & The Traveling McCourys Up On The Ridge Tour, trying to let people know it’s a different deal, but some fans don’t know that. They walk in blind, think it’s me at a small venue. It’s fun to watch their reaction. I can pick them out pretty quickly. We start out with “Train 45,” which is an old traditional banjo and fiddle tune, and I’m off at the side of the stage watching. That goes into “Free and Easy,” and they kind of get the gist of it. It’s been a fun experiment.
SG: So what is country music to Dierks Bentley?
DB: Country music is…can I use an old quote I’ve said before? Country music is religion to me. George Jones said that one time, and I don’t think I could put it better. It’s where you go to find answers when you’re down and where you go to give thanks when it’s good. The songs, the way the music hits you, it really is its own form of religion, and I’m a big believer.
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