To see backstage photos of Dierks Bentley preparing for the concert, visit his artist page.
ATLANTA -- Just a few hours before his first show on George Strait's 2004 tour, Dierks Bentley is asked how he slept the night before.
"I slept great, man, with the help of a little red wine," he admits with a laugh. "I was knocked out."
After a string of dates with Strait, Bentley will open shows for Kenny Chesney's upcoming spring tour. The Phoenix native is pretty sure these are his largest crowds ever, although it's forgivable if his mind is in other places. He and his tour bus arrived in Atlanta the night before, along with his bandmates and a tour manager who doubles as his sound engineer. And of course, his dog Jake.
"He always just goes with us wherever we go," Bentley says. "I didn't try to use it as some sort of ploy. Even in the video, he's just there with us, so we just put him in the video. He's just there for the photo shoots, so he just winds up in the photo shoots. And the pictures with him always seem to turn out better, so that's what made the album cover and made my 8x10s and stuff. He's just kind of around."
Shadowing Bentley for a few hours before his performance, it's clear that Jake brings a certain sense of calm to an otherwise crazy situation. When Bentley takes a five-minute walk from the bus to the stage for a soundcheck, past dozens of imposing black road cases, Jake follows eagerly. Before long, the empty arena is being treated to the band's version of Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing."
Check-check-check. One-two, one-two. Microphones are adjusted, both in volume and height. Some members of the band try to figure out how quickly they need to trot to get onstage once the other players break out the opening chords. Focused on the task at hand and counting seconds, Bentley watches it all from the back.
Though he's the last person to arrive on the stage -- and he's the one paying the bills -- Bentley knows the key to a successful tour is teamwork. Explaining the particular strengths of his unit, he jokes, "My band is really good at making fun of each other, all the time. Everyone gets picked on nonstop so it's just so cool. ... My whole band, we can all sit at one table. I mean we can all fit at one table. There are just five of us. I enjoy this time, where we are in my career, because it's such a small group."
After soundcheck, he goes back to the bus to unwind and to figure out a way to get his brother's friends into the show. He's still unshaven, wearing a sweatshirt and ball cap. Then it's off to catering, which everyone agrees is far more satisfying than the menus usually found when they play clubs. Nobody's shy about chowing down either.
"We just all eat together and make fun of each other together and talk about music together," Bentley says. "Everyone in my band loves to play music, so we'll sit on the bus and pick a lot and work. Rod [Janzen], my guitar player, is a bluegrass fan, and Gary [Morse] is a great Dobro player and loves bluegrass. So we'll sit around, pick some old bluegrass stuff." Rounding out the impromptu jam sessions are bassist Michelle Poe (who has an upcoming single of her own) and drummer Steve Misamore.
"You know, it's different being on this tour," Bentley says. "We'll probably have more free time, so who knows what trouble we'll get into."
Free time is one of those curses of road life. Sure, you get to see the world, but only one parking lot at a time. Some country artists try to write songs in the downtime, often with co-writers who are summoned in the midst of a tour. But not Bentley.
"I've always heard about that," he says, "and I just can't do it. I get out here and get in this mode of concentrating on the show and radio visits and newspaper stuff. You try to find some time to hang out with the band because my band is like my best friends, so I don't want to be doing work all the time. I like to get a chance to hang out and goof around with them. I haven't had a chance to write too much on the road."
Still, it's impossible to predict when inspiration strikes, as Bentley will admit.
"I get ideas just lying in my bunk at night riding down the road," he says. "I'll talk them into this little tape recorder and then go back to Nashville and find the people I need to find that I enjoy writing with. But as far as writing down here, I'm just not very good at it."
However, he's getting better at what he calls the most important skill for living on the road -- spontaneity.
"Good improvisational skills, that's what you gotta have, because every night it's something else. You just try to checklist everything to make sure this is right, that's right and this is right. Then you'll get up there and a tuner will break on your guitar, you know? There's always something you can't count on. We just keep in the frame of mind that we're up there to have fun, and things are going to go wrong. We expect them to go wrong and just work around it."
Borrowing a question from his first single, what exactly is Bentley thinking, just a few hours before walking into a screaming auditorium?
"Everyone's been asking me what I thought about the last couple weeks, and I was telling them, 'I don't know. I'll have to wait until I get down there,'" he says. "There's so much to think about as far as trying to make sure that everything's right that I haven't had a chance to get nervous yet. I'm starting to get a little nervous."
But he's very quick to add, "More than anything, I just feel extremely blessed to be able to have this chance. We've played every kind of honky-tonk and bar and club and dance floor and dance hall you could imagine in the last year or so, to do this deal. It's so awesome. You go from 500- to 1,500-seat places that we're used to playing, to 15,000 seats. It's going to be crazy."