With pressure on, Dierks Bentley does it again

Jeffrey B. Remz, May 2005

The pressure is on Dierks Bentley. Can the handsome singer replicate the success of his debut where he enjoyed two hit singles? Not an easy task given the fickle nature of the music business today where the flavor of the month and here today, gone tomorrow mentality exists and a singer is seemingly only as good as your next hit.

The early verdict on Bentley is a big thumbs up. The lead-off song and first single from "Modern Day Drifter," the Waylon-sounding "Lot of Leavin' Left to Do," is moving up the charts.

And Bentley's sophomore album, once again produced by Brett Beavers, has a lot of solid songs among the 11 ranging from bluegrass to honky tonkers to ballads in a contemporary sounding album that is squarely country.

"I didn't feel too much pressure," says Bentley on his cellphone from Bloomington, Ind., a day after being on the Today show in Nashville with anchor Katie Couric.

"We had a good thing going the first time around. I trusted myself the first time. This is what we do. We took a chance the first time around with me writing most of the songs and producing with Brett. We didn't want to change things."

"I think the label trusted us to do our thing and they stay out of the studio," he says.

While some musicians really plan out what they intend to do, that modus operandi doesn't seem to suit this road warrior very much.

"Some people sit around and make their goals," says Bentley. "I don't. We concentrate on being on the road and concentrate on playing night after night. We concentrate on playing the smaller bars and clubs and really playing places you could connect on a personal level."

Caught onstage in early April in Nashville at a very packed Third and Lindsley during the Tin Pan South week shows, Bentley lives up to his words. He clearly exudes charisma and a sense of confidence - even while sitting down and playing acoustic guitar during a guitar pull type of show with Jedd Hughes and two other singers.

"I don't have to overthink making a record. I don't mean to say I don't think about it...In the beginning of the year (2004), I said we're going to take off Sept. 1 to 10th to make a record. I wrote songs on the road. My producer plays a large role. He came out here a lot on the road writing."

"He came out and wrote stuff on the bus and a lot of songs on this record," says Bentley of Beavers.

When asked about their style of writing together, Bentley says, there is "no really set way. We get a couple of guitars out and start banging and see what they can give us that day. We were kind of doing everything together. We did not have a set formula."

"We didn't mess around," Bentley says. "We had a lot of repeat players. I really liked my first record. I just wanted to take it somewhere a little stronger maybe in songs and content and production wise."

"Production-wise, maybe go for a meatier record...keeping the best elements of a traditional country record. I make records that I would like to buy, that I would like to drink a beer to."

Alluding to Shania Twain, "I don't have the time to go to New Zealand (or) Canada to make a record," he says.

Beavers and Bentley seem to be on the same wavelength.

"I had a real specific plan for the second record," says Beavers on his cell from Plymouth, Mass., where he will play that night with Lee Ann Womack. "Dierks and I knew we didn't (want to) change any of the combinations that we had in place for the first record...I didn't want to change the combination of the same players, the same engineer, the same studio."

"On the flip side, I made a concerted effort to take the material to the next level. It was important to me that (Bentley) had a little more meat in this record. He was known for the fun rocking songs, and he had another side, and it was finally time to show that."

"I did not want to stay on the level as 'What Was I Thinkin'," he says, referring to Bentley's big hit from the first album.

Bentley, 29, hails from Phoenix. "My dad listened to a lot of country music so I listened to it when I was with him. I didn't personally listen until when I listened to Hank Jr., and that did it for me."

The song was "Man to Man," which Bentley describes as his "favorite Hank Jr. song. I was listening to a bunch of rock songs, and a friend of mine said, 'you got to listen to this song'. It changed everything for me."

For Bentley, he connected with Williams at a time when he was "17, drinking your first beer, and a guy like Hank Jr. sings with such bravado."

Bentley wasn't really doing a lot of music himself, playing with friends in a garage band. "I always played guitar. I started playing electric guitar when I was 13. I'm not a great guitar player, but I do play guitar."

"We had a piano in the house. I always said that it was a picture holder. Not really to play. I had an older sister who was very into music, and she got me into music."

By 19, he was off to Nashville.

Why Nashville?

"That's all I knew about country music. As far as I knew, Nashville was the place to be if you want to make country music? I didn't have a whole lot of skill at the time. I could barely sing and play at the same time. I really had to learn, and I knew that coming into it. I moved to Nashville with an open mind to study and learn and try to get better."

"You have a dream that burns so badly that the decision is made for you. It's like a disease. Fortunately, I didn't have to make too many decisions."

He received support from his parents, his banker father and his mother, a housewife. "My mom's the kind of person that says follow your heart, and I've always done that."

When Bentley got to Nashville, he hit the bars and clubs, including haunts like Springwater and the Market Street Brewery where he got good enough to give up the pay of free draft beer for greenbacks.

Bentley also worked at The Nashville Network back when it used to be about country music. He searched through old music footage in the tape library for a documentary.

Bentley reached the point where he wanted to put out his own album. "Don't Leave Me In Love" came out in 2001. (The disc is now out of print, although Bentley says he will reissue it at some point).

About the same time that Bentley released an album on his own, he got a publishing deal with Sony writing songs. A song plugger there (pluggers pitch songs to singers to record) matched Bentley and Beavers, who also was writing at Sony.

Bentley says that what attracted him to Beavers was that he "kind of discovered we liked the both kind of country music. As soon as we started writing songs together, I knew he had the same kind of musical vision that I did."

Beavers says what makes writing combos work is "one of the things you can never figure it out, why it works with some people...I met him, and I really liked him. Within 15 minutes of sitting around and talking, I could tell...His idea of real country music was George Jones and Buck Owens, not someone of the '90s. We hit it off immediately."

Bentley and Beavers hit the recording studio to record demos, which ended up being passed onto record companies. A few became interested, and Bentley liked what he heard from Capitol.

Part of the deal for Bentley was that Beavers was going to produce him even though he only had done demos and "smaller things because it was kind of a first time for both of us," Bentley says.

Record companies tend to want someone tried and true at the production reins, and given that Bentley was an unknown artist, he was given a lot of freedom.

But why did Bentley want Beavers?

"You got to trust your instincts," he says. "I'd been in Nashville long enough. I'd already made a record on my own. I knew what worked for me. It felt right for me. Working with Brett felt like the right guy to work with."

"The first record made me know what I wanted to do. When I made a record deal, I knew I was going to stick to my guns," he says.

"From day one, they knew that I would be writing most of the songs. They knew Brett Beavers would be producing the record. They knew that was the only way I would sign with them."

Beavers says he "was definitely very concerned about doing a really good job. I knew this guy Dierks finally got his shot on a great label...I did not want to screw it up...Going in, I was feeling my way around a little bit."

The self-titled Capitol debut came out in 2003.

Bentley had a hit out of the box with "What Was I Thinkin'," a fast-paced, funny number about hooking up with a girl from an oddball family.

But don't give Bentley any credit for choosing the song to be his introduction to country fans. If Bentley had his druthers, he would have picked the ballad "Wish It Would Break."

Fortunately, Capitol Nashville did not listen to Bentley.

Bentley also scored a hit with another revved up song, "How Am I Doin'."

And he hit the road - hard - playing about 300 dates after the album was released.

"We're a real touring band. We really do build up our following with touring...We haven't done the Tonight show (though that actually is slated for mid-May). We make a fan one handshake at a time."

Bentley clearly is jazzed about "Modern Day Drifter."

Based on the lyrics, Bentley doesn't seem like he wants to be tied down. On "Lot of Leavin' Left to Do," which he wrote with Beavers and Deric Ruttan (they also wrote "What Was I Thinkin'" together), Bentley sings "Guess the Lord made me hard to handle/So lovin' me might be a long shot gamble."

But Bentley turns around and gets sensual on "Come a Little Closer" where he sings "we'll steal away/Off into the night 'til we make things right/The sun's gonna rise on a better day."

Referring to "Lot of Leavin'," Bentley says, "That song really sums up where I am in my life right now not only musically, but personally. It's hard to have a relationship with a girl when you're leaving town every night. When I do back to Nashville, I don't even have a house. I have a hotel room. Hopefully, there'll be a time when I settle down a little bit and have a regular schedule like everybody else does."

Bentley used to own a house, but was away so much that he ended up selling it.

"It's definitely a sacrifice," Bentley says of life as a musician. "Part of your life (is on hold), but it's out there waiting. I've been waiting out here a long time to get on the road. I want to do it right. It means giving all of your attention to do it right. That's what we're doing right now. Right now, we're just out here concentrating on the music."

"It's a huge opportunity that a lot of people would kill for, me included. I know that I'm sacrificing that aspect of my life. This is exactly what I want to do. I made a couple of records that I'm proud of. I want to get as many people to hear them as possible."

"You can't have your cake and eat it too. You have to be committed if you're going to do that all the way."

As for the Waylon style of the song, "Production wise, I always do a Waylon song each time," he says. "The groove just rocks. I wanted to do something in that same vein." Guitar ace J.T. Corenflos provides the licks.

Unlike the first Capitol album where he didn't agree with the first single picked, this time, he thought "Lot of Leavin'" should be the all-important first single.

But that didn't mean he thought Capitol would go along with it.

"It's pretty tough," he says, alluding to the subject matter. "It's not a song for (top 40) country radio. It's a bad ass song. Thank God, they went for it."

"I did not think they would go for it, but they did," he says of Capitol.

"They know I listen to them, and they listen to me," says Bentley. "I thought I'd have to convince them, but they were cool about it."

Bentley is very serious on the closing song, "Gonna Get There Someday." The musically sad sounding song talks about loss with the listener thinking that he is singing about an old flame. Instead, about two-thirds of the way through, it's clear that the person is visiting his mother's grave, telling her how he his hopeful about bettering himself.

"We have a propensity to write sad stuff as well," says Bentley. "It's just one of those songs. We didn't have it set it up to end that way. It ended up being that way. It's sad, but it's a song about hope hopefully."

The song is laced with a lot of fiddle courtesy of stalwart Aubrey Haynie. The fiddles were tripled up, according to Bentley.

Bentley says he has listened to the title track, written by John Scott Sherrill and Wyatt Easterling for "for three or four years. It didn't impact me the way it did until I was on the road for a year and a half. I listened to that song, and it just had a different meaning to me."

"I thought that song summed up the overall tone of the record maybe and where I am in my life right now focusing on the music. Just a modern day drifter playing town after town."

Bentley once again works with the premier bluegrass group, the Del McCoury Band, on this album with "Good Man Like Me." On his debut, McCoury and Bentley paired for Bentley's "Train Traveling."

Bentley is no stranger to bluegrass, at least not once he moved to Nashville. He hung out at Nashville's main bluegrass club, the Station Inn, on a regular basis, which is where he hooked up with the McCourys.

"That bar has just been very instrumental," says Bentley. "If it wasn't for the Station Inn, I would not have fallen in love with bluegrass music. I rediscovered the joy of playing music just for the sake of playing music."

"I wasn't into bluegrass before I came to Nashville. I thought bluegrass was old people's music or something."

"I fell in love with it," he says.

The Station Inn is an open room with long tables where people are there to listen to the music. Bluegrass musicians show up as well to hang out and play together.

"I first met those guys at the Station Inn," Bentley says. The first of the McCoury crew he met was fiddle player Jason Carter.

"He's one of my best friends. And I worked my well up to Del."

Bentley occasionally has played with the McCourys, such as this past New Year's Eve where he stopped in at the Ryman where the McCourys were playing after Bent-ley opened a gig for Toby Keith at the Gaylord Center a block away.

"I just loved the fact that you fact that you got a lot of guys who love to play music," says Bent-ley of bluegrass. "I love the harmony singing and the instrumentation and the overall generosity that people have in their genre. They love to pick and sing."

Bentley clearly has lighter touches musically.

Revisiting themes seems to be par for the course for Bentley. Last time out, he included the honky tonker "Bartenders, etc." On the new disc, it's "Domestic Light And Cold" where he's feeling a bit down in the dumps and supposedly looking for a brewski.

Bentley concludes the song with a humorous attempted pick up, asking "So you like country music?" and then breaks into fake laughter.

Bentley fends off the natural anticipation about the reception that awaits "Modern Day Drifter."

"I hope it'll be received well," he says. "My livelihood depends on people buying the record. I make records for myself based on what I think, and that's my gauge for whether it's a good record or not. I think it's great. Short term-goals to get the music out there and get it heard and hopefully in four or five years be able to do headlining."

"You can't worry too much about the reviews. You do what you can do, and I know I made a great record, and I know I'm happy with it. I put every ounce of my heart into it. It's kind of out of my hands now."

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