Exclusive Interview: Dierks Bentley Talks About His New Album

Dierks Bentley became popular over seven years ago thanks to a brand of country music that was respectful of the genre's long tradition. For Up On The Ridge Dierks has returned to the roots of country and bluegrass.  In this interview he discusses the

While Dierks Bentley has been consistantly one of country music's most popular radio stars with wholly contemporary tunes, he's also shared a love for country music's roots and bluegrass music.  Teaming with songwriter/producer Jon Randall Stewart, Dierks managed to bridge both of those traditional elements into something wholly his own.  Dierks recently sat down to discuss this album and what it means to him to be releasing this at this point in his career. 

Matt Bjorke:  How long have you wanted to make a project like “Up on the Ridge,” a record which, I think, mixes your bluegrass and roots music background with what you’ve done since “What Was I Thinkin’” Came out in 2003?

Dierks Bentley:  I’ve been wanted to make this kind of record since that first time I walked into The Station Inn and discovered Bluegrass as a 19 year-old.  It’s always been there since that discovery and that was one of the reasons I stuck around Nashville for as long as I did before the record deal.  It gave me my first stepping stone in putting my band together and since then every record I’ve made, I’ve put a Bluegrass song as the last track but this last year I kind of thought that this was the right time to make this thing and then the record changed, in the course of working on it, from a strict bluegrass record to what it has become, a combination of different things.

Matt: When did that idea change into the finished album you have now?

Dierks: I think right away when we started talking about songs and ideas.  We thought, “wow,” this is stretching the definition of what bluegrass music is when you cut a Kris Kristofferson song with drums on it or bringing in Jamey Johnson and Miranda Lambert for “Bad Angel,” which is really a country song. So it changed from the beginning.

Matt :The album literally jumps out of the speakers. How was the recording of this album different than your previous albums?

Dierks: Working with Jon Randall Stewart is really the reason we knew that it was gonna be different.  We just decided to make a great record and not worry about what’s bluegrass or what’s country and just do what we love to do.  We got away from the older stuff…

Matt: …Thinking about what works about country radio?

Dierks: …Exactly.  I love country radio and it was tough for me to think that we might walk away from that and not have country airplay with this album.  So we just made good music and were going to let the album speak for itself. 

When we started talking about ideas like “Pride” with Del McCoury and the Punch Brothers, I was writing songs for two types of albums, When we got rid of the genre limitations, it really opened the door for a lot of creative, freeing moments.  It allowed the record to be what it is, a combination of bluegrass, country roots and all sorts of things.

Matt: I think that’s the way they used to do it.  Make the music, worry about the marketing later…

Dierks: Yeah, and when you go back and listen to these older albums and Kristofferson stuff, it’s kind of funny.  They went and made the records they wanted to make and allowed the records to be their own records and not just like the records before it.  Some people were gonna miss the old sound and I don’t know what my next record will be like but I’m sure it’ll be more like the previous record (before Up On The Ride).  This sure has been a blast to make and I’m excited to see how it does.

Matt: Who came up with the idea to work “Pride (In The Name of Love)” into the great version it became? It’s not exactly the kind of song people might expect to hear in a bluegrass arrangement….

Dierks: Yeah and I love to hear Del McCoury’s voice on so many things, he’s always covered stuff from Sinatra to Tom Petty and I loved the idea of getting him on the song and I love U2 songs so when we decided to do it, we figured it was best to go with the biggest one, if we’re gonna take the risk.  The thing that makes that song work is the Punch Brothers because they’re not a Bluegrass band and they’re not defined by genres.  They play traditional bluegrass band stuff as far as instruments go but they also can play Radiohead as fast as they can play Bill Monroe stuff and so you add them and Del’s vocal for it and it turned into one of my favorite tracks.

Matt: I think it could be a good one for country radio…

Dierks: You know, John from the Bluegrass blog said the same thing the other day so that’s pretty funny…

Matt: Well all the programmers know it and it’s different, kinda like how Jarrod Niemann’s “Lover Lover” is completely different. 

Dierks…Yeah, and if it were a radio hit, I’ll have to have somebody to sing the high harmony on that because I can’t hit that note (laughs)…

Matt: How important was it for you to feature other artists on each track?

Dierks: It was important.  I didn’t want it to be a “Dierks Bentley & Friends” album but I wanted to get as many of my friends as I could involved on the record as possible without it seeming too eclectic and Del McCoury and Alison Krauss were definitely going to happen but when Jon Randall Stewart brought me “Bad Angel,” I loved the song but wanted to get the right people on the song to sing it with it.  On the original version it featured Darryl Scott, Guy Clark and Suzi Ragsdale and Verlon Thompson and so I thought who would be my Suzi Ragsdale and Guy Clark and so I called up Jamey and Miranda on their cell phones and they agreed to do it. 

Matt: What can fans who haven’t heard the whole recording expect to hear when they pick it up?

Dierks: I hope they hear some new sounds, new instruments and a new style of music that they haven’t heard before.  We were on a tour ahead of the record with the Traveling McCourys and have an acoustic country/bluegrass kind of thing with drums and roots music like JD Crowe and the New South with drums and steel guitar but also with fiddle, mandolin, banjo and upright bass.   So I hope people like the record and don’t get caught up in what it is or isn’t and that it becomes a steady player in their iPod.

Matt: I think it also showcases what some of these instruments can do…

Dierks: Yeah, like the slide mandolin.  Jon Randall Stewart was really smart about it on “Up On The Ridge.” I’d never heard that before and there was a lot of freedom with what the instruments can do, especially on something like “Pride.”

Matt: Do you have a favorite track on the album if you had to pick two or three?

Dierks: “Bad Angel” is amazing, “Pride,”  “Up On The Ridge,” “Bottle At The Bottom” with Kristofferson being part of it was amazing.  “You’re Dead To Me” has kind of snuck up to me.  I’m such a fan of Shawn Camp's stuff so “Love Grows Wild” has a vibe that’s like some of my older stuff or “Would You Go With Me,” a tune that he wrote for Josh Turner.  It’s fun to play the bluegrass music in front of country audiences and see how they react to it.

Matt:  I think that’s the thing about Bluegrass music, you have to see it live.  Last year I saw Steep Canyon Rangers with Steve Martin and they just blew me away…

Dierks: And they’re an amazing band. They’re really good….

Matt: How are you touring to support this album? Is that touring schedule any different than your previous tours?

Dierks: Yeah, we did the tour before the album a little differently than other tours. We did 25 shows in 30 days and it’s me with the Travelin McCourys and my  country bands.  We did small 1000 seat or less intimate rooms.  It’s been really fun with over two hour plus shows with a lot of music and people seem to be diggin’ it.  Playing all my hits and a lot of stuff from this record they haven’t heard yet.  Small shows that people were able to yell stuff up to the stage.  Each show has been different.  It’s been totally different and really fun.  We did the Detroit Hoedown with my regular band in front of 350,000 fans which was really insane and then did these shows with only 700 fans so it’s a fun, different vibe. 

I love the variety and to get to play with some of the best musicians on the road and I’ve got the best seat in the house getting to play to the left of Ronnie McCoury, one of my great friends.  It’s been fun plugging the two worlds (country & bluegrass) together.

Matt: and I’m sure you’ve been able to play songs from the record that you’ve not had been able to play before…

Dierks:  Yeah, some of my older hits like “Lot of Leavin Left To Do” have a really fresh sound with the seven man band.  They make the songs pop because we typically only tour with a five-piece band.  I’ve really enjoyed carring a full-time banjo and fiddle player.  It’s been awesome.

Matt: Perhaps someday down the road you’ll be able to revisit some of your bigger hits in a bluegrass setting…

Dierks:  Yeah, that’d be fun to do. In the country shows I’ve always broken them down for three or four songs acoustically and this album will be a great way to showcase that.

Matt: What would you like to say to fans that may be hesitant about listening to “Up On The Ridge?”

Dierks: I just ask them to give it a chance.  Don’t go into it with any preconceived notions other than there might be something there that you might like, just like when I snuck into the Station Inn and didn’t know what I was getting into and it changed my life. I hope they’ll enjoy some of the newer songs on the record.