Dierks Bentley: What Was He Thinkin’?

(Newcomer Dierks Bentley visits CMT Most Wanted Live and Grand Ole Opry Live this Saturday (Aug. 16). MWL airs at 7 p.m. ET/PT, followed by Grand Ole Opry Live at 8 p.m. ET/PT.)

Dierks Bentley didn’t come to Nashville with a lot of country music experience behind him. But he filled in the gaps fast. That achievement is gloriously evident in Dierks Bentley, his debut album on Capitol Records. With its themes of bad loving, hard drinking and ancestral pride, it’s as country as George Jones’ growl. Bentley’s first name, by the way, rhymes with “works.”

“My dad was originally from Missouri,” Bentley tells CMT.com. “He moved out to Phoenix in ’57. My mom’s from Illinois. They met in Arizona, and that’s where I grew up. I get back there every now and then. I think we’ll do a CD signing out there this month.” Bentley jokes that he had a piano in his house when he was a kid but that it was used mostly for holding pictures. “Music was always there, but it was never rammed down my throat. That may be why I’m still so eaten up by it. My dad loved Hank Williams, loved George Strait, loved country music. He’d drive me to school, and that’s what we’d listen to. We watched Hee Haw together, and I was a big Dukes of Hazzard fan.”

All that changed, Bentley reports, when he was 13. “I got into electric guitar, and I pretty much listened to Van Halen exclusively for the next three years. I thought Eddie Van Halen was a god. I tried so hard to become a great guitar player. But no matter what anybody says, you have to have some level of talent to play music. You can’t just practice it. You have to have some natural thing, and I just don’t have that thing. I pride myself on being a good acoustic and rhythm guitar player. But I’m not good next to Eddie Van Halen. I kind of discovered that in high school.”

Fortunately for his career curve, his next musical enthusiasm was Hank Williams Jr. “A friend of mine played me his music,” Bentley says. “As with most high school kids, you’re kind of rebellious, and Hank Jr. had such an attitude and ego. And there were things like drinking, smoking and getting drunk. I thought, ‘Man, this is cool. It’s cooler than rock ‘n’ roll.’ Hank brought me back to country music. That was also the same time when the ‘Class of ‘89’ was coming out. I really got into Marty Stuart, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill — all those guys. And obviously Garth [Brooks]. I remember seeing Garth in ’92 back in Phoenix, and it blew me away. He’s such a big influence.”

In 1995, when he was 19 years old, Bentley made his pilgrimage to Nashville. “I moved here under the pretense of being a songwriter,” he says, “because the idea of being an artist and making records was such a faraway dream that I was afraid to tell my parents.” Like Brooks, he quickly butted up against Nashville’s indifference to new talent — especially eager new talent. “I kind of got discouraged,” he admits. “I didn’t think there was a place for me because I didn’t wear a cowboy hat and I didn’t have a huge rodeo belt buckle. It was the mid ‘90s, and the music wasn’t doing anything for me anyway. Luckily, I stumbled into this place called the Station Inn.”

Located on 12th Avenue South, just a few blocks away from Music Row, the Station Inn modestly bills itself as “world famous.” And to bluegrass music fans, it is. Pure country music zealots aren’t all that familiar with it. “I walked in there in ’95,” Bentley continues, “and for about the next five years — you can ask anybody down there — you could count the Tuesday nights I wasn’t there. I fell in love with this band called the Sidemen. Terry Eldredge was in it. I’ve learned more from him about singing than probably anybody else. My dad and I listened to George Jones when I was growing up, but I didn’t really hear him until I met Terry and watched him sing night after night. Being around [this] country music of the ‘50s and ‘60s brought me full circle. And when I found bluegrass, it gave me a foundation for music.”

Bentley admits that the highly charged bluegrass played at the Station Inn was new to him. “All I knew about bluegrass music was Roy Clark playing the banjo on Hee Haw. I thought it was old-people’s music. But I walked in there and here’s five young guys wearing baggy jeans and white tennis shoes, and they knew more about country music than anyone could possibly handle. They were all good musicians, they could all sing and, on top of that, all sing harmony. And they were doing it for 20 bucks a night. They loved it. They were up there smiling the whole night. There were no lights or smoke or videos. It wasn’t about having their faces on the covers of magazines. It was just about loving to sing. I fell in love with playing music for music’s sake. I would not be here if it wasn’t for bluegrass music and for the Sidemen at the Station Inn.”

In encountering people who played music for the sheer love of it, Bentley also made some useful contacts. “One of the first people I met was Jason Carter, [the fiddler for] the Del McCoury Band. He became one of my best friends. He told me more about Flatt & Scruggs and [Bill] Monroe. He was always teaching, and we were writing songs together. That’s the reason I stuck around town. From there I started playing on lower Broadway [in downtown Nashville], just for the hell of it. I wasn’t trying to schmooze a producer or meet people in the business. I was just playing music for small crowds and having a blast.” Later, he joined a band called the Uptown Ramblers, “a little bluegrass outfit” that played at the Springwater Lounge near Vanderbilt University.

In 1998, Bentley took a job at TNN — The Nashville Network — one he would hold until 2000. “I came in and got a job doing research in the tape library for a new show they were doing. I actually got paid for looking at old video footage. I thought, ‘Holy cow! This is unbelievable. They don’t even know they could get me for free.’ That was my job for about a year to research old footage from the Pet Milk Show, the Grand Ole Opry, That Good Ole Nashville Music, The Johnny Cash Show, The Bobby Lord Show. Then I had to go to the [Country Music] Hall of Fame and research down there. I mean, it was just the greatest day job. But even as I was doing that, I was just eaten up with wanting to be on the other side of the camera.”

Three years ago, Bentley had enough confidence — and talented friends — to put out his own album. He still sells it on the road and on his Web site. Titled Don’t Leave Me in Love, the album is on Bentley’s own Dangling Rope label. “I had one boss, one artist, one janitor and one A&R person,” he says, “and they were all the same.” He co-produced the album with Mike Ward, who was also his principal co-writer, and used musicians from Del McCoury’s band, as well as such revered pickers as steel guitarist John Hughey and guitarist Ray Flacke. “I’m so glad I made that record before I made this Capitol one,” he says. “I learned one thing — don’t have any regrets. If there’s something you want to fix, fix it. Make sure it’s just right, because it will drive you crazy.”

When he was playing at the Market Street Brewery in downtown Nashville, Bentley discovered that his drummer had a day job working in the tape room at Sony/ATV Music, the giant music publisher. The drummer took Bentley’s album to his boss, which led to the singer signing to the company as a songwriter in March 2000. In February 2002, he signed to Capitol Records. His chief contact at Sony/ATV — Arthur Buenahora — hooked him up with Brett Beavers, who produced the new album and co-wrote five of its 13 songs with him.

Two of the songs on Dierks Bentley — “Bartenders, Etc.” and “Whiskey Tears” — first appeared on Don’t Leave Me in Love. He explains, “I wrote ‘Bartenders, Etc.’ after being down at Springwater one night, where I was working for free beer. I looked down and that’s all there was for a crowd — a bartender, a bar stool and a waitress. I thought, ‘This is my life, and the sad thing is I love it.’”

The song “My Last Name,” which he wrote with Harley Allen, also came from real life. “I always get asked about my first name, Dierks,” he says, “it being such a weird name. It’s the last name on my mom’s side of the family and was given to me as a first name. So Harley was kind of poking fun at me about that, as only Harley can. … He was saying, ‘What kind of name is this Dierks?’ I tried to explain it to him [how I got it] and that I take a lot of pride in it. He said, ‘I think that would be a good idea for a song.’ … On the road, of all the songs I play, this one gets the biggest reaction.” Bentley adds that “I Wish It Would Break,” his second single, is probably his favorite song on the album. “There’s a lot of acoustic guitar on it, a lot of mandolin, but it’s still a big-sounding record. And lyrically, it just sums up where I was, in going through this relationship that didn’t work out so well.”

Strands of a failed relationship — and Bentley’s recovery from it — permeate the album. “If you’re writing songs,” he says, “you write them for yourself. I was obviously trying to get over things. I think it covers both [ends of the emotional] spectrum — being at the bottom of the barrel, in the dumps, on the short end of the stick and as heartbroken as you possibly can be — which I was when I was writing the stuff. By the time I got done writing it, here I was, over this girl and wanting the whole world to know about it. That’s where songs like ‘What Was I Thinkin’’ and ‘How Am I Doin’’ and ‘I Bought the Shoes’ came in.”

In spite of his love of performing music for its own sake, Bentley says he’s not the least put off by the star-making process Capitol is now putting him through. “Once you get your record deal, there’s a lot of stuff you do,” he acknowledges. “You do a radio tour. You go visit 100 radio stations, and it takes about 12 weeks. It’s good training for entertaining people on the spot. Here’s your guitar and here’s 20 people in a conference room. You’ve got 20 minutes. What can you do? It’s kind of like that Young Guns movie, where Billy the Kid says he likes to test himself every day. That’s what you do on a radio tour. You test yourself every day.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.