After touring almost nonstop for the past month to preview his new acoustic album, Up on the Ridge, Dierks Bentley clearly cherished the opportunity to close the tour Saturday night (May 22) at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
It marked Bentley's first time to headline his own concert at the historic venue, and he was keenly aware it was the very stage where acts such as Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse and the Osborne Brothers defined bluegrass music on the Grand Ole Opry.
Up on the Ridge, set for release June 8, is influenced heavily by those sounds and contains several tracks that fall firmly within the genre. It's not a start-to-finish traditional bluegrass album, however, but rather Bentley's take on acoustic music.
Interspersing the new material with revamped versions of some of his mainstream country hits, the concert shed a lot of light on the type of songs Bentley likes to write and record. That revelation became apparent with the first verse of his opening song, a bluegrass arrangement of "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)."
"Free and Easy" might be a good way to describe his performance. A big reason for that was his backing band for the tour, the Travelin' McCourys -- essentially the Del McCoury Band without its namesake. The solid musicianship of mandolinist Ronnie McCoury, banjo player Rob McCoury, fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram provided all the support and confidence a singer could want. The sound was expanded by the understated work of drummer Steve Misamore and steel guitarist Tim Sergent.
Explaining the album's concept, Bentley recalled his early days in Nashville when he would hang out at the Station Inn bluegrass club to absorb all he could from the music of acts such as the Del McCoury Band.
"That's where I got my country music education 101 -- at the Station Inn on Tuesday nights," he proclaimed.
At the Ryman, highlights from the new album included "Draw Me a Map" (co-written with the album's producer, Jon Randall Stewart) and "Bottle to the Bottom" (a Kris Kristofferson song). Bentley and Stuart teamed up onstage to sing "Down in the Mine," a haunting song they wrote prior to the recent coal mining disaster in West Virginia. The set list also featured country hits such as "Feel That Fire," "Settle for a Slowdown," "Come a Little Closer," "A Lot of Leavin' Left to Do," "How Am I Doin'" and "Sideways."
Late into his set, Bentley introduced the Punch Brothers, the band that includes former Nickel Creek mandolinist-vocalist Chris Thile. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based group recorded three tracks on Up on the Ridge and joined Bentley at the Ryman to perform the traditional "Rovin' Gambler" and Bob Dylan's "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)."
Bentley then sat at the side of the stage, mesmerized by the music, while the Punch Brothers played one of their new songs, "Rye Whiskey." (Not the traditional folk song)
However, the evening's show stopper was when Del McCoury walked onstage to reprise his vocal on an unlikely song from Bentley's new album -- U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)." The syncopation of Punch Brothers fiddler Gabe Witcher, banjo player Noam Pikelny and Thile provided a powerful track in the studio, and the intensity of the live version was truly something to behold.
Singer-songwriter Hayes Carll opened the show with some great original songs and his typically sardonic outlook on life and the music business. The emphasis was on material from his most recent album, Trouble in Mind, including "I Got a Gig," "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" and "Beaumont." Even after making it clear that the song had a tongue-in-cheek message, though, a few people in the audience still didn't understand and seemed a tad offended by the comical "She Left Me for Jesus."
As for Bentley, he's likely to gain a whole new level of respect from country fans, the media and the music industry when he releases Up on the Ridge. It's been many years since a mainstream country act still in their hit-making prime has made such a departure for an entire album.
"Dierks has done a lot for our music, I think," Del McCoury said during the show.
Bentley's new album is, in part, an acknowledgement of how his own music has been enriched by masters such as McCoury. Other artists in Nashville often cite their musical influences, but Bentley's actions speak much louder than words when it comes to repaying the debt.