Dierks Bentley boasts a dozen Top 10 country hits, yet he's having to reinvent himself as a mainstream star for his latest album, Home. The bluegrass-influenced Up on the Ridge received critical praise and Grammy nominations, yet it didn't fit squarely into country playlists. Home, however, is aiming to change that.
"I just wanted to make an album that really defined who I am as a country singer," Bentley told CMT Insider producer Tim Hardiman. "I think the great country songs mixed with some of that bluegrass instrumentation -- and surrounding all that with a little bit of a rock vibe and energy -- is the kind of music I make. Hopefully, with this record, I was really able to kind of capture all that."
He's already scored a No. 1 hit with the catchy "Am I the Only One," while the album's poignant title track is currently in the Top 10 and climbing. In this interview, the hardworking singer-songwriter talks about actively looking for material, composing a patriotic song that appeals to everyone and touring relentlessly early in his career.
CMT: You brought on some other writers for this release, but I also heard you wrote more songs than you ever have for an album.
Bentley: Yeah, for this record, I wrote more than I've ever written before -- for any record really. For about a year and a-half, I wrote maybe 70 songs, but I also listened to more records from Music Row than I've ever listened to, just trying to find great outside songs. I really want the Nashville songwriting community as involved with this record as possible. I kind of did that on the last record, Up On The Ridge, and I really found out how much I enjoyed listening to great songs -- whether they're new songs or old songs -- discovering songs and seeing how they work into my album and fit into the whole piece. For this record, I cut six songs I didn't write, which is odd because I've written more for this record than I've ever written for anything else. But I really wanted to find a way to make those songs work with my material and come up with the best overall album. I found some killer outside cuts.
Was it hard to give up putting songs you wrote or had a connection with on this album?
No, it was really fun for me. This is my sixth record, so you're also finding ways to make it fresh and keep it new. I think the process of really digging in and listening to what's out there on Music Row was really fun. Hearing what the new sounds are and what people are writing about was fresh for me. I tell you, it's been fun listening to country radio because I'm hearing all these songs where I've I heard the demos, and now I'm hearing the records that other people have cut. All of my friends and all the people I respect the most are songwriters in this town and musicians. Just to hear what they're working on and incorporate some of their songs into this album ... I can give some guys their first cut. I've got a couple of guys on this record whose very first cut, ever, is on one of my records. That's a huge honor for me.
Give me a little bit of a story behind the title track.
"Home" is one of those songs. I walked in to write that song with a guy I've never met before in my life, Dan Wilson, and Brett Beavers, who I write a lot of songs with. We got together that day, and I had nothing in my back pocket. No ideas. I used up all of my ideas over the course of the year. I just really didn't have anything left, and no one had anything.
We started playing around a little bit, drinking some coffee, and my wife called and told me that her battery died, which happens all the time in her car. I keep the jumper cables, like, in the front seat, so I cruised over to where she was, jumped her car, came back over and these guys had started a little melody for the chorus. It sounded great. It was really simple, but it was really beautiful. Dan said something about America, and Brett had mumbled something about home and I think I said, "The place we all call home."
We came up with this little idea about writing a song about our country, but the song was really hard to write because you can overdo it, make it a little jingoistic or almost like propaganda. I wanted it to be something that was really for everybody to find something they could relate to. A lot of people are going through a hard time with the recession. A lot of our military families are going through tough times with their husbands being gone for long tours of duty. And, in general, for anyone going through a hard time, I wanted them to latch on to this song and realize we've been through some really tough times and to be honest about the tough times we've had as a country and to showcase the highlights and give them hope that there are better days ahead. I think we were able to achieve that with that song. It's a pretty special song for me.
When you write a song that's patriotic, do you worry that it might be misconstrued that you're diving into political territory?
Sure. I mean, the last thing I want to do is be involved in politics. (laughs) I mean, I'm an American, and I'm an independent. And if I want to get involved in choosing sides, I usually pick hockey or football. I don't think my fans want to hear anything about that from me. But as far as being an American and loving this country and getting a chance to travel across it every day and meeting people on the road and folks in the military, I love this country on so many different levels. I think singing about that and finding things that unite us, as opposed to things that divide us, is safe territory to go into. It's something that I feel like is a little bit of an obligation at some point to sing about after all that I've been given from our fans and from this great country.
Does it seem like it's been nearly 10 years since your first album?
It flies. It's unbelievable how quickly it goes. I mean those first couple years touring with Cross Canadian Ragweed and Kenny Chesney and George Strait are just a blur of great times, great memories. One year, we did 41 shows in a row. No off day at all. We were bound and determined to play more than anybody else and tour really hard. We still work really hard out there on the road and really love what we do. You'd think it would get old, but it just doesn't.