In the early years of a country music career, winning the CMA Horizon Award is a true vote of confidence. Dierks Bentley accepted the trophy in 2005, and he’s especially thankful for the support and the industry credibility the award has provided. This year, he’s nominated for the CMA’s male vocalist of the year in a category with Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban.
Bentley spent most of 2006 touring with Kenny Chesney, and his new album, Long Trip Alone, just debuted at the top of Billboard’s country albums chart. Here, the tireless road warrior talks about singing live on awards shows, driving across the country with his dad and why he’s grateful for the pre-stardom years in Nashville.
CMT: This year, you are up for the CMA male vocalist award for the first time. What was going through your head when you heard about the nomination?
Bentley: When I heard about the male vocalist nomination, I was actually flying from Allentown, Pa., to DuQuoin, Ill., via Cleveland. It was a long travel day. I landed in Cleveland, and I looked at my phone and I had a bunch of text messages saying “congrats,” so I knew something good had happened. I pulled one up and saw that we had been nominated in that category. The thoughts that ran through my mind were being humbled because Alan Jackson’s in that category, and I’m a big fan, especially of his new record. And also the other guys in that category — Keith, Kenny and Brad — are guys who have worked hard to get there. So it’s an honor and humbling at the same time.
The CMA Awards provide a lot of exposure, but sometimes the performances don’t sound very good. Can you explain what’s really going on up there?
Well, it’s tough. Awards shows are tough because you have 20 or 30 people trying to perform in the space of a couple of hours. I know from being on the road, when we’re soundchecking, we might have two bands opening for us, and that’s kind of an all-day affair, getting the sound right and the changeover between gear. So you try to have that many bands on stage at once, you’re bound to have some bad sound.
They try to mix it up between some people playing live and some people playing to a track, but we always try to play live when we can. It can be tough to pull that thing off. There’s a lot of technical stuff that goes into pulling off an awards show, and sometimes people’s sound suffers. But for fans out there reading this, it’s not an easy thing to do. You should always err on giving credit on the side of the singer or the band because it’s a hard thing to pull off.
I think one of the standout cuts on the new album is the title track, “Long Trip Alone.” What inspired you to write that song?
It’s my favorite song I’ve written, probably ever. This year, I’ll be on the road well over 250 days. I got married last year. You come off the road, and the band might have a day off, but I don’t. When I come in off the road, I’m either trying to write songs with someone or doing press or whatnot. There’s a lot of stuff to get done. I got home at 8 in the morning, and then I had a writing appointment at 10. I hadn’t seen Cassidy for a couple of weeks, and I had to leave an hour later, so I was trying to get that connection back. I asked her to take a walk with me around the neighborhood to see if we could speed up that process, and it really didn’t work.
So I went off to write pretty lonesome. I started writing that song with some friends. There’s a line that says, “So maybe you could walk with me a while/And maybe I could rest beneath your smile/Everybody stumbles sometimes and needs a hand to hold/’Cause it’s a long trip alone.” I really started writing it about her, and the three of us were writing it about the women in our lives. [Bentley co-wrote the song with Steve Bogard and Brett Beavers.] The song really became more of a prayer than a song, and that’s the way I hear it now.
What do you remember the most about the day you left home to come to Nashville?
I was 19 years old. My dad and I drove out here together. I remember we stopped in Van Buren, Ark., and looked so forward to getting a cold beer — but it was a dry county. (laughs) That story always sticks out in my mind. It was fun to drive across the country with my dad. But when I moved here, I wasn’t a very good singer. I don’t see myself as a great singer. I was an OK guitar player and I had a couple of songs put together. But I wanted to be in Nashville. I wanted to do music for a living. I wanted to chase the dream.
I spent a lot of years going out to bars listening to people play. Going down to Lower Broadway and absorbing the culture and listening. Going to songwriter nights and listening and listening before I had the courage. The big thing for me was playing the Bluebird [the famous songwriting club] before I turned 23, and I finally got the nerve to go there on a Monday. I put my name in, and I got called. I was able to play that night, and I realized I wasn’t as bad as I thought I was. That was the start of getting out there, starting to roll up my sleeves to get my hands dirty and play all those bars and clubs.
I still recommend that to anybody who asks me that on the road, about “How do I get started?” There are better singers than Alan Jackson and there are better singers than me all across the country, but if you’re not in Nashville, you’re never going to be heard. You have to take that step to move here because this is where it all starts.
Are you still surprised sometimes that you have this kind of life?
Yeah. Before the record deal and before the publishing deal, I was working at a day job and just had the dream of playing music for a living and getting a chance to travel via music. It burned pretty deeply. It was driving me crazy really. I feel lucky that I had a chance to do that before I had a chance to do this because I don’t take anything for granted. There are definitely ways to make it quicker than I did now, certainly with all the contest singing shows. You can get up there a little quicker than I did. But I think I’m fortunate the way I made it — or the way I’m making it — because I never really take it for granted. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t know how good I’ve got it. I don’t work for a living. I’m busy, and there are days when I wish I had a day off, but it’s definitely not a job when you get a chance to live out your dream every day.