Dierks Bentley fires it up

Jeffrey B. Remz, January 2009

Dierks Bentley wasn't complaining at all about his new CD, "Feel That Fire." But it comes at a time where Bentley spends a lot of time on the road, has a new daughter and always seems to be in motion. "At times, it was organic, and at times, looking back on it, it was a lot of work," says Bentley in a phone call in early January from Memphis on the opening night of a tour. "We spent two years making this record. It was the most time consuming and probably the most expensive I've ever made."

"I try to make records to encapsulate all the different elements of who I am and what I am experiencing at the time and certainly musically what I'm into. I love bluegrass music. I love traditional music. I like good rock bands. I like all the sounds. I'm willing to explore wherever my heart wants to go. Really if I had any conscious thing I wanted to do on this record, it was to combine a lot of the fun of 'What Was I Thinkin' and 'How Am I Doin' on that first record with some of the bigger themes that I've reached out to on these other records. I want to make one that (if) you have to buy this one record and see what Dierks is all about, this is it...It has fun songs, drinking (songs). It also stuff we've done like 'Pray,' 'Better Believer.' Big songs and big themes."

Bentley may be best known for those fun type of songs - "What Was I Thinkin'," ""How Am I Doin'" and "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)."

And there's some of that on the new CD with songs like the bluegrass honky tonker "Last Call" and "Little Heartwrecker." But the Arizona native gets very topical on "Beautiful World," a pretty sounding ballad with vocals from ace songwriter Patty Griffin.

The song, penned by Bentley, his long-time producer Brett Beavers and Beavers' songwriting brother Jim, seems particularly appropriate given the state of the world today.

Bentley sings,
"All the noise and the voices are screaming what they have to say
And the headlines and sound bites are giving me demons to hate
And the man on TV, he tells me it's ugly, but if you ask me it's a
Beautiful world, it's a beautiful world
There's tears and there's fears and there's losses and crosses to bare
And sometimes the best we can do is just to whisper a prayer
Then press on because
There's so much to live for and so much to love in this
Beautiful world"

"There are a lot of problems and tough things going on in the world," says Bentley.

"I do struggle with it," says Bentley about maintaining optimism. "I'm reading a book right now 'A New Earth Inspiration Deck: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose' by Eckhart Tolle that really talks about being present in the moment that you're in. You can't lament the past. You can't do anything about the future. You just have to be present. Whether for me personally being on stage during the show or being home with my family, those are obviously moments you want to be completely present in, and I have no problem doing that."

"Riding the bus all day long or watching TV, just getting outside and enjoying your surroundings, I've always done it. I've never really struggled with it. I love sitting on the front seat of the bus, and I love landscapes and where we are and meeting people...Being present out here means hanging out with the fans or getting to know the city...Make the most of every minute - the only power in your life that you can have in your life is being present in the moment that you're in. Each one of those songs really encapsulates a certain moment."

Bentley refers to the uptempo song, "Sideways" where "you're hanging out with the guys. If you're going to hang out with the guys, do it right and have a good time."

Griffin is on the A-list for many musicians to sing with. "She has a weight of gravity to her voice that it really just grounds that song and the message I was trying to get across."

"I just asked her (to sing). I'm a ' huge fan. One thing I learned in Nashville, it never hurts to ask." Bentley did not personally know Griffin before. "I was surprised (she agreed). She said she liked my music. She said she wanted to do it...I just knew her music."

While acknowledging that the world has its troubles, Bentley says he is an upbeat person. "I try to be. I can get down like everybody else. If there's one thing I strive towards, it's being that way. What can you do? Just try to be positive. I try to be surrounded by positive people. When you're down, be down. There's nothing wrong with being down. When you're down...listen to some Frank Sinatra or George Jones and dig into it and enjoy it, and then pull yourself out."

Brett Beavers, a Texas native, who has produced Bentley for all five of his Capitol Nashville albums, does a lot of writing with him as well. "We started that song like we do a lot of them - with music and a groove," says Beavers in a phone call from Nashville. "We thought the music will speak to you regarding what it wants to be about. It's probably not going to be about raising hell. We poked about a couple of different things."

"We tried making it be about a girl," Beavers said. "The key to that song when it was written - just those first few lines of melody, we knew it was the title but we didn't know what it was. 'Beautiful World' (instead of "beautiful girl") just sounded better. Maybe Dierks threw it out, and it sounded right in that melody. It felt right. We started writing verses around that theme."

"A big challenge in writing that song was not to be too sensational, not to overwrite it. Not to talk about babies dying and starving in Africa and when people hear it they go 'ugh.' There are visuals that no one wants to imagine even though they exist. But we still wanted to say 'it's tough, it's easy to be cynical.' It's noisy out there, but can we find anything good about it?"

Bentley, 33, thinks about spiritual matters on "Better Believer." Bentley wrote the song with big time Nashville songwriter Rivers Rutherford. In the song, the person who receives good fortune doesn't thank the man upstairs as Bentley sings,
"Life is seen more clearly through our tears
Cause we all find some faith when we face our fears
When my life's going like I want God becomes an afterthought
And I start trying to build my heaven here
A better believer would look to the skies
Shout hallelujah with tears in his eyes"

"I had that title, and part of the deal (in) trying to make this record (was) it allowed me to pick and choose the people (to make it with). I really wanted to write a song with Rivers Rutherford. I'm just a huge fan of his as a person. He's a great guy. We had talked about writing before. I went over to his house and presented him my idea. He dug it, and we wrote it. It's probably one of the more honest songs that I've ever put out there"

Bentley does a lot of co-writing on "Feel That Fire." He co-wrote 10 of the 12 songs. He wrote "Pray," a love song that also has a spiritual/religious side to it, with Rodney Crowell. The title cut and current hit single was written with Beavers and Brett and Brad Warren (aka The Warren Brothers)

"I start on my own," says Bentley of the writing process. "I usually try to finish them with different people. I don't take extra pride in writing a song by myself. 'Oh I wrote this by myself. That's so great.' So what. Maybe when I was younger. To me, I really enjoy the process of writing a song. Maybe I can finish it out. Some of them I do. Why would I not want to go hang out with Rivers Rutherford...who can teach me a couple of things here and there or go hang out with Rodney Crowell?...I'd rather do that and give them half the money." (the last comment refers to songwriting royalties)

"You can have 100 percent of nothing or 50 percent of something that's great," Bentley says. He referred to needing to bring in Jim Beavers to help finish "Sideways" which "wasn't right yet."

Bentley says that he is a "gigantic fan" (of Crowell). The last three records he's made have just been so good. I love his work. Again, I just called him up. We actually wrote that song about three years ago, and it was never quite finished. My wife sometimes would go through my iPod and just listen to bits and pieces of things I'm working on. She came across that and said, 'you've got to finish this one. There's no doubt about that.' I said, 'really?' So, I finished it and sent it out to Rodney. He said, 'Wow. That's a lot better than I thought it was.' We were blown away. We kept working on it and got it right"

The song is autobiographical to some extent for Bentley - it's about a couple who break up, but instead of going negative about the ex-, Bentley prays for good things for the women. "It was about a relationship I had been through. I've been through some pretty bad ones, and I guess the idea behind that is it's unfortunate that time and effort and love in a relationship, and at the end, all you have is hate. Maybe that's not necessary. Look beyond what happened and see if he can't move forward in a way that's respectful of the time you spent together."

The closing song is "Last Call," a bluegrass tonker written by Ronnie McCoury, son of Del McCoury. This is not the first time that the McCourys have joined up with Bentley. They appeared on "Train Travelin" on his 2003 debut.

"We always put a put a bluegrasser on there...I love the chance to always do a bluegrass song. It's the funnest part of the record," Bentley says when asked about cutting "Last Call." "It's wide open. There are so many great songs to choose. I feel like letting my audience into a world they may not know a whole lot about. I've been kind of backlogged. I've been wanting to cut that song forever. I told Ronnie five years ago I was going to cut that song."

Bluegrass has been part of Bentley's musical recordings since he went to Nashville after high school. Phoenix did not exactly have a booming bluegrass scene when Bentley grew up there a few decades ago. Instead, he was introduced to the genre when he hung out at the Station Inn in Nashville, one of the premier bluegrass clubs in the country.

Every Tuesday night, a group called The Sidemen played the club. Only they weren't run of the mill players. Among those who shopped up were Ronnie and Rob McCoury, Mike Bub, also a member of the McCoury Band, Terry Eldredge, Jimmy Campbell and Gene Wooten on Dobro. "Those guys really turned me on," he says. "The Sidemen and The Station Inn and Del McCoury. That's how it all came together"

"The only thing I knew about the banjo (growing up) was Roy Clark on Hee Haw," says Bentley. "I had no idea what it was. I thought it was old people's music."

That changed when he saw The Sidemen. "Those guys are younger than me, and they're wearing it out. They're not using amplifiers or anything else to do it."

Bentley grew up listening to music. Bentley started listening to country through his non-musician parents. "Music was always playing in our house. My mom loved Marty Robbins. My dad listened to a lot of country music. They had a role for sure. I listened exclusively to country just because that's what my dad listened to. When I started to 13, I stopped listening to country and started listening to rock and roll."

He picked up an electric guitar, formed a jam band with a couple of friends, playing in a garage.

Bentley wasn't too long for Phoenix at that point though. "I was getting in trouble back at home. A couple of guys I'd ran around with, we were in the back of a couple of police cars." Bentley was not specific about what landed him in a cruiser.

"I was heading down the wrong path," he says. His parents shipped him off to the Lawrenceville Academy in New Jersey for four years of high school.

That changed his life. "At 17, I got turned onto Hank Jr. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and lights out."

What did Bentley like about Hank Jr." "Just his attitude and bravado. And singing about cold beer and naked girls. I said, 'man, that's what I need to be listening to right here."

"Being there made me sort of homesick. That's actually how I got into Hank Jr. I had one friend up there that just really loved country music. He played me a Hank Jr. song, 'Man to Man.' Being so far away from home, everything clicked together. Things with my dad...Nothing really clicked until that. Wow, this totally resonates. Something inside said, 'this is it'."

Bentley moved to Nashville, interning in music jobs, including the now defunct Nashville Network where he catalogued footage of old performances. He also played some clubs around Nashville.

In about 2000, Bentley worked as a writer at the same publishing company as Brett Beavers, Sony. "A buddy of mine thought we should write together," says Beavers, who was writing and on the road with Lee Ann Womack. "I knew he'd been around town playing bluegrass gigs and the Lower Broadway thing." Lower Broadway is a section of downtown Nashville where a slew of small clubs are located where performers tend to pay for pocket change and hone their skills.

Music man Arthur Buenahora met Dierks, "got attracted him and thought he had artist potential," Beavers says. As for writing together, Beavers says, "You never know whether it's going to fly or fail...We were trying to do some cool songs together and went in the studio and demoed the songs (recording rough cuts of songs) we'd written, and Arthur was going to take that around to different labels and see if he could generate some interest."

From the get go, Beavers and Bentley clicked. "Right away there was a chemistry," says Beavers. "I don't know (that) you feel it. You kind of look back and know there's obviously something there. Because the first day we get together we wrote a song." ("She Won't Choose Me" ended up as a bonus track along the way).

"I've written with tons of co-writers, and for whatever reason, whether spiritual or a chemistry, sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't."

"With Dierks it was always real cool songs (that we wrote). It was a great hang. We had a lot of the similar interests and loved the same music. We loved the Buck Owens and early country and had those influences going together. I think what he brought to me was a really youthful, young energy that I could feel in the room. It kind of just drew me in the process of creating with him. Young, single, good-looking guy. Nothing was impossible to him. He was positive."

Bentley, who released a CD, "Don't Leave Me In Love," independetly in 2001, eventually signed with Capitol Nashville, and Beavers was brought into produce even though he had never done that before. Capitol head Mike Dungan "liked the demoes. He liked the energy. He said, 'you go try it.'"

Bentley enjoyed success from the outset with his first single, "What Was I Thinkin," which made it to number 1 in 2003, the first of 5 chart toppers he would wrack up.

While satisfied with the results of the recordings, Beavers says, "We still needed a break. I think the timing was right. We were at least aiming for the target of making him a different kind of artist."

Bentley followed the hit with "My Last Name" going top 20 and the very fast-paced "How Am I Doin" at number 4.

That set the stage for "Modern Day Drifter" in 2005, which like the debut went platinum, signifying sales of 1 million units. The roll continued for Bentley with two number ones with the ballads "Come a Little Closer" and "Settle for a Slow Down" and a number three with the uptempo "Lot of Leavin' Left to Do."

While the sales of Bentley's third album didn't approach his first two (it went gold for sales of 500,000), the hits kept coming with "Every Mile a Memory" and "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)" both topping the chart and the title cut coming in at number 10 and "Trying to Stop Your Leaving" at 5.

Bentley also was a steady road warrior, doing club dates with Cross Canadian Ragweed, opening slots and eventually headlining as well. He's done such non-country gigs as Bonnaroo, Lollapallooza and in December 2008, a Nobel Prize concert.

Bentley's live show allows him to show his charisma and energy, bounding about the stage with a real sense of enthusiasm, while mixing it up between honky tonkers, ballads, bluegrass and more contemporary sounds.

Last year, Bentley put out "Greatest Hits/Every Mile a Memory 2003-2008," which contained a few new songs and a slew of live versions of songs as well.

At the same time as prepping for the hits disc, Bentley started recording in May 2007 with pre-production on "Feel That Fire." Four months later, he returned to the studio with his band and in December 2007, Bentley and his band hit yet another recording studio. "A lot of those songs made it," says Bentley, including the title track, on the final version.

"We felt like we were really close to having a great body of work, (but we were) missing a couple of things," Beavers says. In April 2008, 1 day of recording in Nashville resulted in several more songs recorded. A total of about 25 songs were whittled down to 12, but with the way the music business is these days, Beavers expects 4 of the 25 songs to be available as extras through Amazon, Rhapsody and iTunes to encourage people to buy the entire disc and get some exclusive songs.

"I tried to blend ideas and energies from my band especially with the session guys who know my sound so well," says Bentley, who is now on tour with Brad Paisley in the winter.

Not content to merely rehash what he has already done, Bentley says, "My mindset with this record was really to pull the carpet out from the way we've always done things before and try something different." n

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com