Dierks Bentley Talks Up On The Ridge

Sam Gazdziak | May 20th, 2010

dierks-interview-01

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-interview-02DIERKS 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.

  1. Leeann Ward
    May 20, 2010 at 7:01 am

    Dierks seems like a heck of a guy. I’m looking forward to the album. He came to a bar not more than two hours from us at the beginning of the month and I’m sad that I didn’t get there, since it was in the middle of the work week. I’m afraid that it was truly a missed opportunity/experience.

    I’m sure that if Punch Brothers could successfully pull off the White Stripes “Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground”, they’ll be able to tackle a U2 song. I love me some Punch Brothers! Best show I’ve seen so far.

    Great interview.

  2. Jon
    May 20, 2010 at 9:03 am

    Uh, bluegrass artists have been tackling U2 songs for a while now – at least as long ago as Dale Ann Bradley’s recording of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” back in 1997; Jeremy Garrett of the Infamous Stringdusters cut one of their songs on his solo album last year, and the band has another on their brand new release, Things That Fly. More generally, bluegrass acts have been covering rock songs for about a half century now, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise any more; a more surprising choice here was the decision to take “Roving Gambler” at such a rapid clip ;-).

    I like the album quite a bit, but for me, a Dierks Bentley & Bluegrass Friends project – a cut or two with the McCourys, a cut or two with the Stringdusters, a cut or two with Punch Brothers, a cut or two with the Grascals, a cut or two with the Sam Bush Band, etc. – would have been more exciting.

  3. Lucas
    May 20, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Man, this sounds like a great project, can’t wait to get it. Like Dierks said, to have a top 40 hit off the album is huge; when is the last time you heard the Dobro as the main instrument on a top 40 country song?

  4. Matt Bjorke
    May 20, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Dierks is one heck of a guy. When he called me (our interview @ roughstock will be posted release week) he first apologized for being late to the call. Not many do that. His passion for this album is tremendous.

    Lucas, Dobro was a ‘main’ instrument on “What Was I Thinkin’.” But that was 7-8 years ago now.

  5. Noeller
    May 20, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Man oh man am I jacked for this project!! Dierks definitely is the real deal, and I love that line about not realizing how much the “country world” relies on Pop Rock. Time to move away from that and get back to the real deal – the guys who write their own stuff and play instruments well!!

    Kick ass Dierks – hope to see some of this tour up north at some point!

  6. Michelle
    May 20, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    I hope this album does well for DB. I’ve always heard that he’s a really nice, down to earth, guy. A few years ago, someone I know dissed him so bad. DB walked up to him, stuck his hand out to shake, and introduced himself. DB said, “Hi, my name’s DB.” Someone I know, basically, came across as, whatever, just run along. He didn’t know who DB was. He was too concerned about getting Julie Roberts autograph. I let him know what a dummy he was!LOL! Oh well, he knows who he is now!

  7. Kyle
    May 20, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Agree with the thoughts on Dierks as a person, but I’m not too enamored with the single. Bluegrass is fun… but it’s not very original lyrically, and the melody is so darkly dissonant that I don’t really like listening to it all that much. Maybe it’ll grow on me though.

    I say stick to the driving songs! Settle For A Slowdown, Long Trip Alone, Free and Easy, Every Mile a Memory are all among my favorites from him.

  8. Peter
    May 20, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Doesn’t Good Directions by Billy Currington feature a prominent dobro?

  9. kaylyn
    May 20, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    I think that dierks bentley has a good singing voice in order to make a bluegrass album with his own way of singing bluegrass music. I am going to see dierks bentley live in concert on june 18th with my best friend from 5th grade. I consider dierks bentley to be my ultimate favorite artist that loves bluegrass music and country music I also consider dierks bentley to be my music hero.

  10. Collin
    May 20, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    “If courtesy sold records, Dierks Bentley would be a multi-platinum artist.”

    I get what you’re saying, but that sentence makes it sound like Dierks is NOT a multi-platinum artist ;)

  11. Kim
    May 20, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Very timely article for me. I’m going to see him tonight in DC at the Synagogue at 6th and I. Really looking forward to the show!

  12. merlefan49
    May 20, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    I’ve listened to clips of it and I’m not impressed. From the clips I hear very little bluegrass.

  13. Jon
    May 20, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    From the clips I hear very little bluegrass.

    Here we go.

  14. Razor X
    May 20, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    I was a little disappointed in the title track, but the clips I’ve heard of the other songs are very good.

  15. Steve Harvey
    May 20, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Here we go.
    You know, the state of bluegrass today is ridiculous. It’s nothing but country music with mandolin and upright bass added! I’ve got nothing against country music, but when I turn on bluegrass radio I expect to here bluegrass music. If Dierks Bentley is really bluegrass, why does he get played by country radio?
    This wouldn’t have happened in the 80s!

  16. Nicolas
    May 20, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    I saw the music video for “Up on the Ridge” yesterday and wasn’t too thrilled by it, but I am somewhat interested because of the collaboration w/ Miranda Lambert <3

  17. I Am Very Cute
    May 21, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    back in the 40s and 50s bluegrass are played on country radio…:-)

    Bill Monroe was on country radio and so was Ralph Stanley and THe Country Gentlemen.

    In today’s world, these neo-bluegrassers are not exactly claiming themselves to be bluegrass band.

    They prefer calling themselves a newgrass.

  18. Josh
    May 21, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    Good luck Dierks. Hope all is well with your adventures into bluegrass. But I gotta say I’m most impressed by your definition of country music. You certainly explained it all too well. Now I gotta go back and listen to good ol’ George and see what I’ve been lacking.

  19. merlefan49
    May 21, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    I want Nashvile to stay out of bluegrass. Look what happened to country music. The last thing I want to see is it get to the state where Talent is the last thing that matters and how hot looking the singer or band is the most important.

  20. merlefan49
    May 21, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    @I Am Very Cute

    Most of the groups and artists I listen to still call themselves bluegrass.

  21. Jon
    May 21, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    Well… Monroe was definitely on country radio into the early 60s; Flatt & Scruggs did reasonably well at country radio in the late 50s and early 60s. The Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, Jimmy Martin, the Country Gentlemen, not so much; the Osborne Brothers a little bit in the late 60s. Then, of course, there were some great records by Ricky Skaggs in the early 80s, like his recording of “Uncle Pen” that went to #1. There was Garth Brooks’ version of “Calling Baton Rouge,” recorded with members of the New Grass Revival (who had the earlier cut on it). There was “Travelin’ Soldier” by the Dixie Chicks. “(I’m A Man) Of Constant Sorrow” got up to about #35 the second time it was released. And some others. But in general, not much bluegrass on mainstream country radio, though I’d say that I Am Very Cute still has something of a valid point. On the other hand, the term “newgrass” gets very little use these days, and hasn’t had much currency for a long time.

    But the fact is that it’s nonsensical to call for “Nashville to stay out of bluegrass.” Bluegrass was born in Nashville, and Nashville has always been its most important and durable home. It is a kind of country music, and its ties to the broader range of country music are manifold, varied and permanent. It has provided musicians and material to the larger country mainstream, and it has taken musicians and material, too. They are inextricably intertwined.

    Personally, I am bemused by Merlefan49’s assertion that there is a danger that attractive people will start playing bluegrass. I think that’s a little insulting to Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, Alecia Nugent, Dan Tyminski, Jamie Dailey and the fellas in the Infamous Stringdusters, not to mention me!

    But seriously, and getting back to Dierks’ new album, I am curious to know what features that Merlefan49 believes to be essential to bluegrass are missing from Up On The Ridge and/or what features deemed to be utterly incompatible with bluegrass are present on the album. Because I find the idea that there’s “very little bluegrass” on the album to be utterly incomprehensible.

  22. Matt Bjorke
    May 22, 2010 at 12:52 am

    I agree with Jon here. the album itself is loaded with bluegrass stuff.

  23. merlefan49
    May 22, 2010 at 8:24 am

    Not what I meant about the way they look in Bluegrass. Have you noticed in country if your not good looking etc chances are your not gonna get a major label.

    Yes Dierks cd has bluegrass influences it’s not what’s missing it’s the drums, the steel

  24. Jon
    May 22, 2010 at 9:05 am

    So, then, Merlefan49, who are the ugly stars in bluegrass on the genre’s major labels – like Rounder, Rebel, Sugar Hill, Compass, et.al. – who prove that looks aren’t a factor in bluegrass success?

    Yes Dierks cd has bluegrass influences it’s not what’s missing it’s the drums, the steel

    Drums have been used in for a long time and by a lot of different artists, from Jimmy Martin and Flatt & Scruggs back in the 50s to the Grascals and Ricky Skaggs today. Steel’s been a bit rarer, but it’s been used, too, by artists ranging from the Osborne Brothers to J. D. Crowe. Martin, Flatt & Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers and Crowe are all in the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame. Are you saying the IBMA doesn’t have as good an idea of what bluegrass is than you? Do you think Bobby and Sonny and Jimmy ought to be removed from the Hall of Fame?

  25. Richard
    May 22, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    I’m stoked for this album. I’ve listened to the clips on Amazon and was quite surprised that the songs sound more “bluegrassy” than I thought they would. I’d love to catch him on this tour to see some of his older material reworked in the grassy style too.

    I’ve yet to hear “Up on the Ridge” on any of the country stations here, though (Lex, KY). Hopefully that changes soon.

  26. merlefan49
    May 22, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    I was talking about this cd not Hall of fame members. No I don’t think they should be removed.

  27. Jon
    May 23, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Bit the reason you gave for saying that this album has very little bluegrass on it applies to many bluegrass records made throughout the course of bluegrass history. So it doesn’t seem to be a very good reason.

  28. merlefan49
    May 23, 2010 at 10:24 am

    I’ve only heard clips. Maybe after I hear the whole songs I will change my opinion.

  29. Steve Harvey
    May 23, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    MerleFan49, I think Jon’s got you here, I’m afraid.

  30. Kyle
    May 23, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    I was listening to this song a little closer… am I correct in hearing that the entire song consists of just one chord? You don’t hear that much, nor do you hear a chorus whose melody consists of that many consecutive descending half-step changes.

    It’s unique, I’m just not sure it’s unique in a good way.

  31. Jon
    May 24, 2010 at 7:44 am

    Kyle, I’d say the chorus has 3 chords, even though the bass is pedaling on the 1. But it’s not like bluegrass doesn’t have its share of 1 chord songs…

    Lots of good stuff about Dierks, the album and the tour up on my buddy Craig Havighurst’s website, http://www.stringtheorymedia.com/

  32. SHORESLADY
    July 11, 2010 at 2:28 am

    I find the title cut “Jp on the Ridge” compelling and demands a replay then another…Whether the final product meets anyone’s definition of bluegrass is probably the least significant factor here. Does it make me want to buy the CD? Absolutely. Will I beef up my bluegrass collection, craving for more — doubtful during this Recession.

  33. jayla
    July 14, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    i love that song it roks he actually did a good job with that one

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