FRANKLIN, Tenn. — If you want to get to know the real Dierks Bentley, pick up his new album.
Everything Bentley loves is on display in “Up On The Ridge,” a record that breezily moves between genres and presents Bentley in a way the singer has never been seen before.
“I'm not sure how you describe it — bluegrass, country, roots, or whatever,” Bentley said. “It's simply art. I made a record that's a piece of art as far as I'm concerned.”
The album is eclectic, features special guests from Bentley's two different worlds, and is jam-packed with interesting moments and interpretations of obscure songs.
It's also a completely risky venture with no single that fits squarely in the country radio format that has helped drive his career.
Bentley knows he's taking a chance — and he has enjoyed every minute of it.
“I love a lot of music outside of country music,” Bentley said. “Every album that these [artistic] bands make is different from the album before and fans are expecting something different. Country, it's not like that. Once you hone in on your brand, it's kind of like you keep that brand as tight as can be and you don't mess with it. You can name a singer and say, 'Oh, they're this, they represent that, they do this.' For better or worse, that's the way country music is.”
These kind of risks don't often work out, Bentley said, speaking at his ridgeline property that inspired the title song. Bentley originally planned to do two albums this year — a country record and a bluegrass record — to make everyone happy. But as he started to assemble ideas with producer Jon Randall Stewart, one record quickly merged into two.
Mike Dungan, president of Capitol Nashville, acknowledges that Bentley is stepping into unknown territory, but doesn't expect issues. His last album, 2009's “Feel That Fire,” produced two No. 1 hits — his sixth and seventh in just six years — and a No. 2, affording him a little wiggle room.
Dungan calls the album “spectacular.” He said the single, “Up On The Ridge,” is playing at 100 radio stations and the album is getting the full promotional push. The company also sought marketing help for what he calls “right of the dial” stations that play acoustic music.
“I encouraged him to do it, but it is still a risk,” Dungan said. “Any time you step outside of your box you hope that you can get back in. I had not a lot of concern from the beginning because I knew whatever happened with this bluegrass record or this acoustic record with bluegrass influences — whatever you want to call it — it was going to be good because of what was in Dierks' heart.”
“Up On The Ridge” is a representation of Bentley's roots in a way. His backstory is a familiar one. The Arizona native moved to Nashville at 19, obtained a fake ID, and became a regular at the Station Inn, where some of the world's best bluegrass hands hang out.
His smooth voice and good looks took him far from the Station Inn after his 2003 self-titled debut, but it was never far from his thoughts. That became apparent quickly when Bentley and Stewart sat down on the porch with a couple of whiskeys to discuss the album.
“To me [the album] makes him a true artist as opposed to being an entertainer or just another pretty face on radio,” said Stewart, a stalwart in the acoustic and bluegrass world. “He's always made great records. Actually, I was honored to be a part of this record and that he entrusted me to take this vision that he had for this sound and reaching it. He's a very broad artist and I think this is his opportunity to prove it.”
The 34-year-old Bentley traveled far afield sonically and physically to record the album. He co-wrote five of the 12 songs, mined some untraditional covers, and assembled a roster of accomplished players and guests to pull it all together.
There's his cover of Bob Dylan's “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),” Kris Kristofferson's “Bottle To The Bottom,” and Suzi Ragsdale and Verlon Thompson's “Bad Angel,” which features Jamey Johnson and Miranda Lambert.
Bentley also traveled to Brooklyn to work with the Punch Brothers, the new band of Nickel Creek's Chris Thile. They made three songs together, including a show stopping version of U2's “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” that features bluegrass luminary Del McCoury singing high harmony on the chorus.
The lead single is a great example of the fusion that produced the album. Bentley cowrote the song with Angelo Petraglia, the songwriter and producer probably best known for his work with Kings of Leon. He pulled in guitarist Bryan Sutton — “a lot of [country acts] probably don't know who Bryan Sutton is and Bryan Sutton is a god amongst gods in the bluegrass and acoustic worlds” — fiddler Stuart Duncan, and Sam Bush playing a psychedelic slide mandolin.
Bentley immediately began breaking bluegrass' hidebound rules. For one, he employed a drummer, which is pretty much sacrilegious. Then Petraglia showed up in a leather jacket with an old Gibson guitar.
“I was like, 'Oh, man, I wonder how these two worlds are going to mix?'” Bentley said.
Alison Krauss provided a harmony that Bentley said had a “spooky hillbilly vibe to it” and the end result is a song that's a little bit bluegrass and a little country with a dash of rock 'n' roll. It will certainly catch radio listeners by surprise, and that's by design.
“One of the reasons we put this out as the first single,” Bentley said, “is because people will hear, 'Oh, Dierks made a bluegrass record,' then they'll hear this song and it will completely blow their expectations of what they thought the album was going to be. Lovin' that.”