Dierks Bentley‘s “I Hold On” is an appropriate way to introduce his brand new album, Riser. When country fans first met Bentley in 2003, he was a curly-haired newcomer posing for an album cover with his adorable dog, Jake. More than a decade later, Jake is still in the picture, but Bentley is now a family man with a wife and three kids — including a newborn son, Knox.
Bentley began writing for Riser, his seventh studio album, around the time he lost his father in the summer of 2012. He wrapped the album just as Knox arrived in October 2013. During an interview with CMT.com, Bentley explains how that circle of life influences Riser, as well as the optimistic message that weaves its way through the project.
CMT: In the video for “I Hold On,” I understand you brought those actors out on tour with you. Did they get a true-to-life feel for life on the road?
Bentley: They did. I had this idea. What if we just trace the steps of someone, to get to that idea of faith, love and freedom? But not get to it in a cheesy or generic way. We wanted an authentic way. The way I saw faith, love and freedom, and the way I saw America, was through a tour bus. That was my first time going through places like Wisconsin and Illinois and Iowa and Nebraska. … I think anybody who watches that video feels like they’re on the bus and on the ride.
I like the production on that song — the bass and the low end in particular. It feels like a heartbeat.
It does. A heartbeat. I like that. I think for the whole album, the goal was for the music to provide the heartbeat for the lyrics, instead of going in and saying, “Let’s make a country record where we put steel guitar here, the fiddle here.” We said, “Let’s just let the lyrics decide what the music is going to be.” Which instruments — or even which sounds — are going to best support the lyric of the song? So it was a really different mentality.
Did it take you a while to get used to that?
It did. Ross Copperman, our producer, and Reid Shipp, our recording engineer, don’t really come from country backgrounds. Although Ross writes a lot of country songs, musically, his influences are different than mine. I’d hear a hole and say, “You need to fill that with something.” And he’d say, “No, let it breathe. It’s atmospheric. Let’s let it have a moment to rest there.”
It was cool to mix ideas like that and being uncomfortable sometimes when we were recording and realizing later that he was right. … But I think one of the keys to keeping this whole thing interesting, from my standpoint, is shooting for different things.
And you don’t want to repeat yourself.
Yeah. I think a lot of guys who have been successful in country music have honed in on a certain brand and sell that. I don’t really do that. I’m always searching for something that’s going to be a little bit different for my fans. … Sometimes I go to great extremes, like making Up on the Ridge, the bluegrass record.
On this record, I think the sounds are different than what you might have heard in the past. I think that in itself might be its own brand. Always keep it changing a little bit. Never let them know exactly what’s going on or get too comfortable with the music.
I do think for the fans who like to know more about your personality and what’s going through your mind, this is a record they’ll really like.
Yeah, I think it is. The record started in a darker place. The first single I put out, “Bourbon in Kentucky,” I think it just stopped a lot of radio stations when they put it on. There were all these summer songs coming on and fun songs and then [mimics song] “chh, chh, chh.” And then, “There ain’t enough bourbon in Kentucky for me to forget you.” It’s such a hardcore song.
I had some programmers tell me, you know, “It’s just too much.” And I appreciate their honesty. I have a great relationship with radio, and I love that feedback. … We went for something, but it’s cool because that song reflects where the album started with my dad passing away. Then by the end of it, my son was born.
And in between those two pivotal moments in my life, I was on a co-headlining tour with Miranda [Lambert] across the whole country. It was the most fun I’ve ever had out on the road. It was such a cathartic experience. So, the album ends up making a full circle. It starts off on a downward slope, but it picks up steam and comes back around toward the end.
To me, the song “Riser” has an optimistic message. Do you agree?
Yeah, I think the song’s optimistic. It’s hopeful. It’s almost like a motto — that you want to be this person. You want to be strong enough to make it through the tough times, to be a shoulder somebody can lean up against and to be somebody’s rock. I like to think of myself as that person, but I also want to be that person when perhaps I’m not. I think it’s a really optimistic song, and I think, in all, the record comes out feeling optimistic.
There’s an element of nostalgia to “Damn These Dreams.”
I almost didn’t put that on there. I sent it out to the guys in the band to see what they thought. I sent about five songs out, and they all wrote back and said, “That’s our favorite.” It’s just so personal. It talks about your first love, which for me was Hank Jr. and country music. And then you get older and you have kids and a family and a wife. Now I have four other things tugging at my heart. And I thought it was hard to leave the house with Jake!
It’s an honest song. And a lot of times in country music, as singers, we try to … well, honesty doesn’t necessarily sell. You know, what sells is always going to be fun and party time and rock ‘n’ roll. So, to put a song out there, [saying], “Yeah, you know, it is kind of tough doing this.”
And it’s not just for a country singer. Anybody who’s a traveling salesman — which in a lot of ways, I am — that has to leave their home and leave their families can relate to that. It’s tough, but you wouldn’t have it any other way. I wouldn’t change a dang thing about it.