Country star reconnects with his roots
Dierks Bentley takes a trip into bluegrass territory
FOXBOROUGH — Somewhere between “Midnight Rider’’ and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,’’ Dierks Bentley’s dreams come true.
On a small-scale club tour to offer his fans a peek at his forthcoming bluegrass-accented album, “Up on the Ridge,’’ the country music star with the classic singer-songwriter skills and central-casting good looks was hopeful that fans who knew him only from his mainstream radio hits would be receptive to his new, stripped-back sound.
Receptive would be an understatement.
If anyone at the sold-out Showcase Live show was suffering from electric guitar and studio polish withdrawal, they did a good job hiding it, stomping along to the aforementioned Allman Brothers Band and George Strait covers, older Bentley hits like “Settle for a Slowdown’’ — given a vibrant, rootsy retrofit — and hooting through the grandly swampy noir of songs like Kris Kristofferson’s “Bottle to the Bottom,’’ which appears on “Up on the Ridge,’’ out Tuesday.
Amid the furious virtuosity of the Travelin’ McCourys — fiddle bows flying fast and furious, mandolins and banjos picked with precision, and high harmonies ringing out with an ecstatic lonesomeness — Bentley, 34, looked positively giddy.
“I did this tour just to be able to do things like this,’’ the curly-mopped musician said a few hours before showtime, relaxing in his dressing room and rhapsodizing about the band — essentially the highly regarded Del McCoury Band sans its leader. And these are not just hired guns. The men in this band are the ones that awakened Bentley’s inner bluegrass hound when he stumbled into the Station Inn in Nashville as a 19-year-old musician in search of a sound.
“He probably had a fake ID at the time,’’ mandolin player-singer Ronnie McCoury says with a chuckle. “But he really enjoyed the music — that’s for sure. He was trying to figure out exactly what he was going to do.’’
The Arizona native reared on everything from Van Halen to Hank Williams Jr. ended up veering toward the pop-country arena, touring relentlessly first as an opener and then as a headliner, releasing four successful albums that spawned 10 top five country hits including “What Was I Thinkin’,’’ “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do,’’ and “Sideways.’’
Fans of those songs might view “Up on the Ridge’’ quizzically. “It is a huge departure in some ways,’’ Bentley admits. The album features obscure Bob Dylan covers, spooky and spunky originals, and a run through U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)’’ that is shocking in its freshness. It is neither strictly bluegrass nor country. It has roots, rock, and pop inflections. It is simply what Bentley wanted to do, and he felt he’d finally built up the credibility to give it a shot.
He knows some will gripe about the drums and steel guitars, and that some contemporary country fans will be taken aback by the lack of gloss. And he’s thrilled. “It makes me happy that people are talking about it and they can’t define it. Music should be defined by good or bad.’’
But he has no trouble defending it. “For anyone that knows me, every record I’ve made there’s been a straight-up bluegrass song on the last track of the album. So in a way I feel it’s more like me going back and reclaiming some turf that I feel like I have some ownership of.’’
It helps immensely that Bentley is taking this journey off his beaten path — both onstage and on “Ridge’’ — with a host of sure hands helping to steer the wheel. They include Miranda Lambert, Jamey Johnson, the Punch Brothers, Tim O’Brien, Alison Krauss, and Del McCoury — who contributes a neck-hair-raising vocal to the U2 song.
And Kristofferson graces his own “Bottle’’ with his legendary gruffness. (Bentley pulls out a laptop to screen a video of the two in the studio that contains many shots of the men’s feet because Bentley was timid about pointing the camera in Kristofferson’s face.)
“Country music is definitely one of the most commercial of all genres,’’ Bentley says. “Once you build your brand up, you just stick with what’s working.’’ And “working’’ is the operative word, as success begets a larger operation complete with employees that depend on you and, Bentley says, the pressure to keep things stable.
“You’re trying to keep the momentum going, and the best way to do that is play it safe with the music and keep putting out stuff that people like. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all — part of your job, certainly in the country realm, is we sell a lot of escapism and nostalgia, and if that stuff works, that’s what works.’’ But, he says, “I need to keep being inspired. For me it was the right time to make this record.’’
McCoury says he can’t help but beam with pride when talking about watching Bentley work his way from his first demos to arenas, all while retaining his connection to the roots music scene.
“He’s such a hard worker,’’ McCoury says. “He’s just never forgotten.’’
Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com.