"You can define it however you want to define it -- bluegrass, country. I don't care," Dierks Bentley says about his acoustic album, Up on the Ridge.
Some of the greatest music ever created defies simple categorization, of course, and it's been quite some time since a contemporary country artist -- one with current mainstream appeal -- has attempted a project quite as ambitious as Bentley's latest album.
"For me personally, it's something I needed to do for myself and for my hardcore fans that have been asking me to do this for a while," he said during an interview at CMT's offices in Nashville. "So now that it's out there, and people are hearing it and getting that feedback, it feels good, really good."
Produced by Jon Randall Stewart, Up on the Ridge includes five songs Bentley co-wrote, with the others chosen from the catalogs of Bob Dylan, Buddy and Julie Miller and Kris Kristofferson, among others. On the album, Kristofferson also joins a cast of vocalists including Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, Sonya Isaacs and the SteelDrivers' Chris Stapleton. The instrumentalists include a who's who of bluegrass and acoustic music, including Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan and Ronnie McCoury.
Highlighting the album and Bentley's recent concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, an innovative all-acoustic cover version of U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" features a duet with the Del McCoury Band and instrumental backing by Chris Thile and members of his current band, the Punch Brothers. Ironically, McCoury had never even heard the song, but his distinctive vocals underscore the power of the song and the performance.
Here's part of our conversation with Bentley.
I can't think of a mainstream artist -- still in their hit-making prime -- who has done anything like Up on the Ridge.
Bentley: A couple of important things. One is that I've always wanted to make a record like this. I wanted to make it while I was still in the middle of my career. I didn't want it to be on the tail-end or like a send-off piece -- or "now I'm gonna go into the bluegrass community after I've had my run in the country world." I wanted it to be right in the middle of what I'm doing. The second thing is ... is that I knew the big question was, "Are we trying to make something for the commercial country world ... or are we really going to dig in and go for it? And if that's the case, here's what we're going to have to give up, and here's what I'm personally going to have to let go of. Am I going to be able to live with the possibility of not having my songs of the radio for over a year?" That's the hardest question I asked myself because I live and die by country radio. In my soul, I just love hearing my songs on country radio. That's why I moved to Nashville.
I've worked my ass off to become one of the regular guys on country radio, and I had to risk walking away from that to make this record. Once you got past that, then the doors open wide up, and you can make any kind of record you want to make. And once you get past bluegrass, country -- that whole thing -- you can do "Rovin' Gambler," and you can also do "Bad Angel" with Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson. You can bring in Sam Bush and Alison Krauss. You can go do country and bring in Kris Kristofferson. You can make the record you want to make and not worry about those [stylistic] labels. And the cool thing is, if you take that leap of faith and go fully down that path, it kind of comes back around when people give you a lot of props and respect for the fact you did do something like that. And country radio is playing the song [the title track] that was not designed for them at all. I didn't change the song up for country radio. It just felt like it could work at country radio. And there are a few songs on here that could work at country radio. I mean, bluegrass music is country. If radio can go rock or pop, it should be able to lean a little toward the 'grassy side, and it has in the past. Hopefully, I'll be able to ride that a little bit.
Before you moved to Nashville, you must have been listening to bluegrass music while you were living in Arizona.
The only exposure I had to bluegrass music was Hee Haw. I thought it was old people's music. ... I had no idea what bluegrass music was at all. And then there I was -- 19 years old -- in this big strange town hanging out anywhere I could. I remember everyone was kind of trying to be Garth Brooks -- you know, the clothes and the hat and the style. ... I didn't dress like him, so I was like, "Well, I don't know how it's going to work out for me." But a friend of mine from Alabama said, "We need to go to the Station Inn on Tuesday night. You're going to dig this." I walked in there and saw kids my age just dressed in what they wore -- baggy jeans and sneakers -- and they're playing those instruments, singing in harmony. And the power that came off the stage, I felt like Columbus discovering America. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. And I didn't miss a Tuesday night at the Station Inn for about five years. Well, one. I missed one night when it was snowing out. ... My buddies went down there and later told me, "Dude, the power went out. Vince Gill showed up, so we all went to the back room. Amy Grant was there, and they all sang in this small room." And I was like, "I will never miss a Tuesday night again."
How did you make the transition from going there as a fan to getting to know the musicians?
It's not just the bands. It's the community. There was a bluegrass community that was always at that bar. And from there, you hear about pickin' parties at someone's house. ... I would bring my guitar, but I would leave it in my car. I would just listen because I was too nervous for a long time. And I remember all the bluegrass Tuesday nights and Peter Rowan saying something about, "Whoever your heroes are, just make sure you're around them. Even if you have to drive their bus, just be around them." And my hero was Terry Eldredge [currently of the Grascals], the guy that turned me on to this kind of music. And what was great about Terry and those guys is that they were a bluegrass band but they played country songs. They did Haggard songs. They did "Why Baby Why" by George Jones. They'd do all these country songs.
But there's a tradition of that with Jim & Jesse and the Osborne Brothers.
Yeah, the Osborne Brothers. The lines were blurred between country and bluegrass. Now they can be further, in a lot of ways. But bluegrass got me back into old school country.
When you were performing acoustic versions of your mainstream country hits during the show at the Ryman, it became fairly obvious that the bluegrass influence is at the core of your songwriting.
Sure. I mean, there are some songs that just won't go both ways, but I think the acoustic guitar is always going to be a driving force in my music, and the banjo is always going to be prevalent in a lot of my songs. If the banjo can roll to it, it's definitely going to work in a bluegrass configuration. ... If you were trying to define this record, you could define it as bluegrass or country bluegrass or roots music, but you could also define it as just country music without the electric guitar.
How did the tracks with the Punch Brothers come about -- specifically, the U2 song?
I knew Chris. I was a big fan of his, and he had this new band. Jon Randall actually was the one that said, "You've gotta listen to their music." I hadn't listened to it before. So I got the Punch Brothers album, and I would sit there in the bus and challenge the rest of the guys in my country band to listen to their record -- listen to it from top to bottom. Everyone is sitting around with their eyes squinting -- just trying to follow the time signature changes and key changes. It's difficult music to listen to. It requires active participation in the listener. You can't just sit back and drink a cold beer to it. It's crazy.
There were a few songs [on Up on the Ridge] that I knew if we had a bluegrass band to play on them, they're gonna sound like a bluegrass band playing a cover song, and it's going to sound really cheesy after four listens. And these guys [the Punch Brothers] are not a bluegrass band. They're are an acoustic band, and so having them play on "Pride," they're more like an acoustic symphony. I've heard stuff they've done of, like, Bach, and it just blows your mind. So having them play on "Pride" was Jon's idea. So going out to Brooklyn for four or five days and playing with those guys was really inspirational and inspiring for me. A big part of the record is to give that magic, free and outside-of-the-box feel. Those guys took the song and made it their own.
Do you think your work on this album will affect the way you approach your mainstream work in the future?
Having success with a certain production team and a certain writing team and then throwing it all out the window -- working with completely different writers, producer and engineer -- that was a lot of fun. And this was a risk or whatever, but I think I'll see that it's OK to do that. I think I'll take away that it's OK to pour on the 'grass a little bit. I still love the sound of our country show and I love the sound of big electric guitars and bass, but incorporating that in the future and doing a hybrid of it all together, I see that happening. I was telling someone the other day, I'm a country singer that made a bluegrass record -- kind of pushing myself from a rock 'n' roll standpoint. ... I doubt the next record is going to sound like this one because it's going to be a totally different deal. I know that goes against what's popular in country -- as far as success in country. Country music is like NASCAR, where branding is really extremely important. No one really brands themselves as thinking differently between every album. That's a rock 'n' roll thing. With country, we tend to stay right there and lock it in. Hopefully, my brand will be something that people think is fun and a good time, but also that, musically, we're never resting on our heels. Every record is something special.