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DIERKS BENTLEY: UNAFRAID TO BE "DIFFERENT"

The sun’s setting on a Saturday night, and there’s a palpable buzz in the air. After weaving through the beast that is Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre’s backstage, I’m escorted into Dierks Bentley’s dressing room, where the Capitol Nashville star and I are supposed to meet for an interview before his show; it’s part of his Somewhere on a Beach Tour, which kicked off in May, just got extended through October and will be followed by even more time on the road with the What the Hell World Tour in January. Ornate tapestries are draped on the walls, but they’re joined by a large American flag that’s obviously been folded and unfolded too many times to count. The lampshades are red, giving the room a warm glow that complements the scent of candles burning. I’m immediately poured a drink. This is clearly a home away from home. Bentley—who hosted the ACM Awards in April, was recently nominated for four CMA Awards, including Album of the Year, and just nabbed his 15th #1 with single “Different for Girls”—glides in with a content, slightly sleepy grin. Based on that facial expression, I assume he has no idea who I work for.


You released your self-titled debut in 2003. There were then four proper albums and a Greatest Hits set, and then all of a sudden, a bluegrass album. What compelled you to do that?
To be fully honest, I kinda stalled out in a lot of different ways. I’m really proud of all those records, but on the last one, Feel That Fire, I was touring nonstop. I was trying to get to this level here, where I’m headlining these bigger places, and I think I was viewing albums as ways to help the tour, to help with headlining. I went out on my own in 2006, 2007 and 2008, and I was playing these huge arenas, but if someone wrote a review of the show, they’d say, “Hey, bless his heart; he played like it was sold out, but there were only like 2500 people there.” 2500 people is a lot of people in a theater, but not in an arena. When you’re playing The Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit that holds 20k and you have 2500, it’s not a good look. So, we kinda made some mistakes early on, and in 2009, I found myself opening for somebody else, and I had really hit a wall. I just decided, “I wanna just leave it all behind and go make a bluegrass record.”

It’s a fun one for sure.
It’s one of my favorite records, and it really is responsible for all the success I’ve had since then. I have a great record label that was like, “Yea, go for it,” and I made that record and I was off Country radio for at least a year and a half. Everyone thought I was absolutely crazy, and looking back on it, I probably was. I don’t think anyone’s really done that. But it really helped me get back to the music that I love. My debut album has a lot of grassy instruments on it; there’s a lot of dobro and banjo and mandolin. I love those sounds mixed in with electric guitars and drums, and I kinda got away from that. Making that bluegrass record retooled me a little bit. And also, when I made that record, I learned to cut other people’s songs. Up until that point, I had only cut songs I’d written, really. I’d look for some outside songs here and there that I’d record, but it was mostly stuff that I’d written. On that record, my buddy John Randall started bringing me stuff like a cool Kris Kristofferson song from 1970, and then he’d bring me Buddy Miller songs. It was half and half, and from there, going forward, I started listening for great outside songs, although I’m not writing any less. It’s hard to tour nonstop, feel like this and also be a good songwriter. I just can’t do it all. And I have three kids. Those guys in Nashville are writing songs every single day. They’re so good at it. 

Well, to be fair, it’s like having two brains—your touring brain and your writing brain. They’re completely different.
Yeah. Totally different. I feel like if I write 70 songs, I can probably get maybe six great ones. Those guys back in Nashville are just like, “hit, hit, hit, hit, hit.” So I’m just not a very proficient writer. I started going back to the Nashville community to find songs to help tell stories with the album, songs that complement my central theme or what I’m going for. I just put a lot of emphasis on making albums and not worrying about separating albums from touring. Make albums for albums’ sake, and if it helps the touring, great. 

Up on the Ridge was released in 2010. Since then, you’ve dropped three albums. Obviously, you have quite the discography. What was your favorite album to create and record?
The second one, Modern Day Drifter, was fun, because I was on the road nonstop—300 days a year—and we actually wrote that record on the road. It was grueling. We cut it in 11 days. That album was really in the moment. We just went in and knocked it out, because we had to get back out on the road. So, I love that album because it really captured who I was at the time—a modern day drifter. There was a song, “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do.” The whole album had that vibe to it.

But, there’s also this last record, Black. I feel like its sound and theme were things that I’ve been trying to realize for a long time. I went into the record with absolutely no songs left over from the album before. I had no ideas; I was just trying to find something to write about. And eventually, I wrote that song, “Black”; it’s my wife’s maiden name. It’s a sexy song, a dark song. Well, that song’s not dark. It’s kinda dark, but not in a negative way. I started going down this road, thinking it’d be fun to make a record that had this sense of this relationship thing and wasn’t so much about the fun, happy stuff. I’ve been married for 10 years. I was trying to dig in and find some more dirt—you know, the part after happily every after. It gets in there a little bit. That’s how it started, and it evolved as I was making it. I love the album. I feel like it really has a beginning and an end and a real story. 

Well, that’s how albums used to be created. Albums were experiences with songs acting like chapters in a book.
Exactly. There’s a rhyme and reason for it all. And people say, “What’s the one song that sums up the album?” You can’t just take Chapter 13 and go, “Here!” It’s not gonna make any sense. So, in a way, I’m making a record for me more than anybody else. I feel like fans are gonna do what I do, which is go to Spotify; they’re gonna go buy a single, they’re gonna go do whatever they wanna do. And radio’s gonna play their songs. At least I know I made a record for me that I love. If nobody else listens to it in chronological order or buys the whole thing, at least I know I did what I wanted to do and I’m happy with it. I encourage people to listen to it however they want to. Whatever you want to do is totally cool with me. But, as an artist, I think you need to make records for yourself first and foremost.

What are your thoughts on streaming?
I use Apple and Spotify all the time. You know, it’s such a complicated issue, and I’m so thankful that there are songwriters out there who are aggressively tackling it and going to Congress. And I’m happy to be an advocate and a voice, I just can’t right now because I’m touring and my kids are still so young. I will say, as a recording artist, you make your money on the road. There’s no money in making albums. But there should be, and luckily, we’ve got people working on that.




In terms of motivating factors and intended meaning for the records, how did your mentality shift between Riser and Black?
Riser is also one of my favorite records. I felt like [“Riser”] was such a big part of the album. I was circling around some stuff, and then my dad passed away, and that song came around. And I had a song I had written called “I Hold On,” which talked a little bit about him, and then my son Knox was born, so there was this full-circle thing happening. The album really revolved around the idea of being a riser, and my dad had a big influence on that record.

Black is totally different. It’s more about my relationship with my wife and just relationships in general. Riser was so personal. How do you go on from that? But, I feel like what makes Black more personal, in a way, is the fact that there are a lot of songs on there about things like deception and cheating; it has all this crazy stuff going on. Fans know which songs I wrote and which songs I didn’t write, which songs are about my personal life and which songs I recorded to help fit the story of Black that I was creating. I think it’s pretty personal. I appreciate my wife for letting me put her name on the cover, because if you listen to the record, you’ll be like, “Ah… They’re kinda struggling a little bit there. What’s going on in that house?”

Well, I have to thank you for “Somewhere on a Beach,” because I recently went through a really nasty breakup, and that song kept me from making those 2am drunken phone calls a few times, for sure.
Yes! That song got sent to me, and I was like, “OK, I love the song. It’s so catchy, but I don’t know how it fits into this album.” Then it kinda became the perfect part. Look at the first part of the album. It feels younger; it’s focused on discovery and going through the ups and downs. The back half—the B-side—is more about growth and maturity with songs like “Different for Girls,” “Light It Up” and “Can’t Be Replaced.” The album starts with “Black”—he’s with the girl. With “Pickup,” there’s some shit going down, and then with “I’ll Be the Moon,” there’s really some stuff going down, some cheating, and then he finds the new girl, he breaks free and he’s somewhere on a beach. The next song’s “Freedom”—he thinks he has it all figured out—and then, the song after, “Why Do I Feel,” kinda topples it all back down again, but [“Somewhere on a Beach”] really helped. I was worried about how I was gonna fit it in, and then it became such an important part of the record. It’s a fun one to sing every night. People love that song.


You worked with Maren Morris and Elle King on this record.
Maren’s great. She came in the studio all by herself. I love when people do that. I texted her, and she came in. She was awesome. We were both wearing green army shirts and black pants; we looked like mirror images of each other.

My buddy Ross [Copperman], who produced the record, also went down to Texas to record with Elle. Same way. She was just down there—so cool, so easy to work with—she's great. It’s hard to work with another producer who doesn’t know your voice. We’re all pretty insecure in the vocal booth.

So, we had Elle King on the record. I had this great conversation going on with female voices being not just background singers, but taking verses. And I had my wife’s name on the cover, and three of the songs were written with three other great female songwriters and singers: Jessi Alexander, Hillary Lindsey and Natalie Hemby. I brought their voices up in the mix a lot on those songs. It just started to become this cool back-and-forth thing.

Do you have a favorite song to perform live?
Probably “Different For Girls” right now. “Somewhere on a Beach” is great too. I just have such fond memories of Elle. She’s such a badass. She can drink anyone under the table. I saw a show of hers at a small place in Nashville, and it was so good. I felt like I was watching one of those shows you hear about, like a Jimi Hendrix show that everyone talks about. She was pouring everything that she had into it. She did have me worried a few times, because she was definitely throwing the drinks back. She’s not messin’ around. You’re getting an authentic, real performance. I had just seen an arena thing the night before, and I thought, “This is so much better.”

I love her to death. She makes fun of herself all the time, and then she gets in the studio and she’s such a good singer, but she’s so funny. And I just love the yin and yang of “Different for Girls.” I feel like with the relationships I’ve been in, I’m the one that’s heartbroken and incapable of going out. It’s different for everybody. I like the song, and I like the fact that she’s on it as that element. She’s all tatted up and has blue hair, and she doesn’t seem like she’s that kind of girl. It gives it that ambiguous quality, which I think is important.

What do you think about what seemed to be some pushback on “Different for Girls”? To me, it sounds like the song came from a soft place. Maybe you’ve seen women in your own life go through hard times, or you look at your daughters and think about their futures, and this song was your way of sympathizing. But, how do you respond to reactions like that?
Totally. For me, it comes from a lot of things. Obviously, after having my two daughters, I see the world differently. But, also, out on the road, I’ve got a badass named Heather who runs the load-out. She’s walking around here with purple hair. Some of these local crew guys will be like, “I’m not taking orders from a girl.” They’ll say that! And I’ll be like, “Dude, you will.” My whole world is run by women: my manager, my PR agent, my business manager, everyone.

I see subtle and not-so-subtle stereotyping in comments. And some of it’s so minor. Someone was talking about Crystal Gayle; we were honoring her at the ACM Honors. She was being interviewed, and the first thing the guy said was, “Well, you’re young and you’re beautiful, and you’re a good singer!” Shouldn’t that be flipped around?! When you’re interviewing a guy, do you ever say, “Yeah, you’re handsome, you have good muscles, and you’re a singer!” I just see little things I never saw before. I see it all the time now, definitely because of my little kiddos. There hasn’t been that much pushback. I’ll see some stuff on the socials, but for the most part, I think people appreciate a song out there that’s not just about some of the same old stuff. At least it’s a look at it. It’s starting a conversation.

The country format is very diverse right now. There are people like Eric Church, who are infusing real rock into their records, and then there are people like Sam Hunt, who clearly have R&B and hip-hop influences, and, of course, a lot of records are getting poppier and poppier. Do you have any particular thoughts on the current state of the genre?
I honestly think it’s one of the best times to be a country singer or recording artist. There’s such a huge tent, as far as production goes. You can have any sound. You talked about Church and Hunt, and it goes all the way to [Chris] Stapleton. These guys are all getting played on the same radio. It’s crazy. It's so wide open. You get a chance to go into the studio and use all the tools that people are using out here in L.A. It still has to be a country song, though; lyrically, it still has to tell a story. I think that’s what makes Sam Hunt’s songs. He’s such a good songwriter. He’s using these different sounds, but it’s still a great story. It’s not just about the hooky choruses. The verses are all really moving the story along. I think Eric does that, Sam does that, Chris does that, and I like to think that I do that. 

Your own records are very versatile and seem to draw on a lot of different styles in some way or another. Who are some of your inspirations?
I was gonna wear a Van Halen shirt tonight. As far as country singers go, I grew up with my dad listening to stuff by artists like George Strait, Keith Whitley and Randy Travis. I love country music. I can go really deep on country. I really love bluegrass. But I listen to everything. I’m thinking about the last things we were listening to in the car; Jordan loves Meghan Trainor, so she loves the song “NO,” and she’s five. Evie loves “Unsteady” by the X Ambassadors, and my son Knox loves Taylor Swift, so we listen to a little bit of everything. I love all kinds of music. But, yeah, from 13-17, I had a Hondo electric guitar. Van Halen was like the entry band, but then I was into Ozzy and Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, and I had a lot of Whitesnake and Winger. I was into Pearl Jam–and still am. I started listening to Hank Jr. when I was like 17, and he was singing about drinking and had electric guitars, so I thought, “This is pretty cool.”

A few months ago, you hosted the ACM Awards in Vegas. I heard you threw one hell of an afterparty.
Yeah, complete with In-N-Out burgers and hangover kits. It was awesome. I did it with Luke [Bryan]. We had a blast. We had a party that was just really fun. It was all friends. No one even took their camera out. Everyone was just hanging out, having a great time. I love when everyone just puts their phone away; it’s so much better when everyone’s present and just hanging out. The ACMs were fun. Hopefully, I get a chance to host that again. I had a great time.

Congrats on your CMA noms, including Album of the Year.
Thank you. It’s the one you go for—the big one—especially when you feel like you made an album for yourself and other people like it too. There are so many talented people in Nashville. To be one of five in anything feels pretty good.


Tell me about your team. Who makes it all happen?
Mary Hilliard [Harrington] is the ninja warrior. She’s amazing—a Jedi is what she is. Coran Capshaw’s my manager, but Mary really runs the whole ship. There’s Tyne [Parrish] with PR, Tom [Addison]’s my road manager and Jay [Ballinger]’s my production manager. Kelsey [Henry] makes a lot of it happen out here, and so does Dani [Gore]. Every night that I get on stage, I get kinda emotional. I almost wanna stop the show and thank everybody that’s worked so hard, because we have like 44 people out here. It takes a lot of people to make this thing happen every day.

Back in Nashville, I’m so lucky to have Capitol Nashville Records, Cindy Mabe and Mike Dungan. Jay Williams [WME] is my booking agent, and I knew him before he was a booking agent; we used to play in a bluegrass band together. My business manager, Jamie Cheek, who I used to play basketball with before he was in that deal. Jeff Biederman’s my lawyer. I feel like I’m giving one of those acceptance speeches I’ve never had a chance to give before, but, yeah, it takes a lot of people.

Any advice for up-and-coming artists?
I think it gets harder and harder to cut through every year. There’s the amount of stuff you have to do other than just playing music—all the socials you have to entertain. And the deals are harder now, ’cause everyone’s taking a piece of everything, since we’re not selling as many records. You just have to play music because you love to play it. Don’t be doing it for any other reason. Make music every day, and hopefully it’ll find a way to get out there, but it’s tough, man. Make music. Make music.

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