What in the world was Dierks Bentley thinkin?

Jeffrey B. Remz, September 2003

What in the world was Dierks Bentley thinking when his first single rocketed up the country singles charts?

"I'm surprised in that it's the music industry, and things never seem to work out as they should," says Bentley in a telephone interview from Nashville about "What Was I Thinkin'," his catchy, twangy Top 5 hit.

"I hope this doesn't sound egotistical," he says. "I think we made a great record. A great record. A team doesn't go to a game not to win the Super Bowl. I feel lucky, and I feel really honored."

"I'm just pleased more than anything else," says Bentley, talking in mid-August just before the release of his self-titled debut. That also did quite well on the charts, debuting fourth for sales.

The single is a humorous one from the get go with Bentley, who co-wrote it with producer Brett Beavers and fellow artist Deric Ruttan, singing "Becky was a beauty from South Alabama/her daddy had a heart like a nine-pound hammer/think he even did a little time in the slammer/what was I thinkin'"

But despite the anger of his girl's father, the couple continues their escapades through cornfields and confrontations with "a mountain of a man with a 'born to kill' tattoo."

"For legal ramifications I can't go into the song too much," says Bentley, before adding, "I'm kidding."

Bentley says Ruttan and Beavers both were in steady relationships "and I, of course, was not. I was dating a girl that was a little bit younger than me. There was a father I had to meet every time I walked in the house. It was a little intimidating."

"We had so much fun writing it. We wrote it pretty quickly."

Bentley says he was so excited, "I called the A&R person at Capitol (the person responsible for singing new acts). I called her out into the parking lot. It's a pretty amazing song to come out of the gate with."

"I can tell if it's a hit song when we're out on the road, if people are singing the lyrics back it."

But if Bentley had his way, "What Was I Thinkin'" would not have been the first single.

"I didn't want it to be the first single. I wanted to come out with a song 'Wish It Would Break.' It's a little more slow, a little more serious. I lived that song to a T. I have 14 stitches in my knuckle. I have not only an emotional, but a physical attachment to the song."

The song is about an ex. Bentley sings "I swear my truck's got a haunted radio 'case/I hear you in every song."

Bentley admits to having some sort of temper because he said he really did hit his dashboard when a particular song came on the radio that reminded him of his former flame.

"It's a pretty straight forward country song," Bentley says of the tune that will be his second single. He wrote it with Beavers, who is better known for his guitar work than production.

"A lot of people can relate to it. If you're dumb like I am, you go out and live out a verse. I have a tendency to do stupid things. I like walls and doors. I never punched a stereo enough to break the skin of my hands. A song came on the radio. (He doesn't remember the name) I didn't think I punched it (the dashboard) hard enough. I punched it again. There was my knuckle exposed. I went to the ER. If I'm singing it, I'm reliving it every night."

Bentley keeps his album pretty traditional among the 13 songs. He mixes up a lot of acoustic-based songs with a touch of bluegrass.

Bentley says he wanted to make music that was "really just trying to make a record for me where I was at this time of my life. It wasn't like I was trying to record for radio or anyone else. I just made a record for me. I made a record that's a little bit acoustic based because I'm huge fan of bluegrass music. There's no piano on the record. It's still country acoustic music."

And while country's biggest demographic appeal is to women, Bentley takes a different tack.

"I made a record for the guys that are out there. I like female singers, but I like country singers that I can relate to. There hasn't been much on the radio that I can relate to."

Speaking of his music, Bentley says, in effect, don't expect him to go soft. "If we're going to err, it's going to be on the side of Hank Jr.," says Bentley.

"It's hard to describe my music, but I think it goes well with domestic beer...NASCAR, (Tennessee) Titans football. A little bit more man music."

Bentley makes it clear he's not abandoning the female side of country though.

"Females are fine with the kiss off songs," he says.

"They relate just as well. Everyone loves the love songs."

In Bentley's case, most of them just aren't that happy. And there may be a good reason for it.

"I went through a relationship that supplied me with a lot of songs," says Bentley. "It was one in particular. I'd asked a girl to marry me. I got more of the two-word response, not the three-word response I was looking for. Thank God. It was two years ago which is when I really started writing the record," says Bentley.

The Phoenix native moved to Nashville when he was 19. He spent a lot of his time listening and playing in Music City bars and clubs.

Bentley spent a good chunk of time - many a Tuesday night - at the Station Inn, which is a center for bluegrass. Bentley says the timing was right because he had been down on music.

Bentley eventually got a regular kid at an older bar, Springwater. He later did time at the Market Street Brewery, moving up from playing for free draft beer to a paying gig.

Since the music did not pay the bills, Bentley got a paycheck by working for The Nashville Network. He worked in the tape library checking out old music footage for a documentary.

"Dierks Bentley" was not the artist's first foray into recording music. He'd put out an independently released disc, "Don't Leave Me in Love," a few years ago.

But like many artists, he was not too active in really pushing the album.

He also had some good news coupled with that release. "That's why the record didn't do very well. As soon as I got it done, I got a publishing deal with Sony. So, I didn't do a whole lot with it."

While at Sony, song plugger Arthur Buenahora (pluggers pitch songs to artists) hooked up Bentley with Beavers, also a Sony writer. They recorded demos together, which eventually found their way into the hands of record labels with two expressing interest.

A showcase followed where an act will play for record label folks in the hopes of getting signed. Capitol head Mike Dungan apparently was excited.

"It's hard for a label president to balance creativity with the bottom line," says Bentley. "He did, and that's why I ended up going to Capitol."

After signing, Bentley says it was "just gut instinct stuff" that led him to have Beavers produce. This was his first time behind the controls.

"I like working with people who are hungry," says Bentley. "Brett's one of the hardest working people I know. I respect musicians more than anyone else in town."

"You have to study everything else that came before you...I liked the way he interacted with other musicians. I didn't want him to be linked to another producer. I had a chance to work with other producers."

Bentley closes with "Train Travelin'," one of 11 songs he wrote for the album and 1 of 2 he wrote solo. The song features bluegrass stalwarts the Del McCoury Band backing him up.

"That's the highlight of my musical career so far. Because of the Del McCoury Band I am where I am today. They taught me so much about the music industry. I met those guys at the Station Inn. They don't compete with anybody else. They stay above the fray. They taught me so much about bluegrass people, which is why I stayed in town. Just play music because you love it."

Bentley says music was "not (about) being in a video."

The other song he wrote alone, "Bartenders, etc."is a straight honky tonk ditty. The song was based on an experience at Springwater. "I looked one night in the crowd," Bentley says. "There was no crowd. There was a bartender, a stool and a waitress."

"It came pretty quick," Bentley says of the song he wrote in 1999 and appeared on his first album. "I won't lie to you."

While most of Bentley's new music is on his own album, come the end of September, he also can be found on "Songs of the Louvin Brothers," a tribute disc featuring Johnny Cash, Alison Krauss and Vince Gill.

With a bunch of stars on the album, Bentley's name was not even listed when an early advance was mailed.

"It only took a year of yelling and bugging to get on there," says Bentley. "I know (producer) Carl Jackson. He sang on my first record. Luke Wooten was my engineer. They made it happen. It's a huge huge honor. They don't come any bigger. I did the whole thing myself. I just kept begging. I wanted to be part of it. Carl was producing it. We went in and cut the track. I asked Capitol if they would allow me to be on it, and they said they would."

Bentley looks to a country guitar god for inspiration in his musical career.

Bentley remembers "Chet Atkins making records that he liked. I feel like I'm in touch with country music because I'm a country music fan more than anything else. If I'm not doing this, I'm on the road. I'm listening to music. I'm always digging through my old Hank Williams stuff. I really feel I have a have a pulse on what people like me have been missing."

And with the success he's enjoyed so far in his young career, Bentley says, "I feel like I've been vindicated."

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