Dierks Bentley's career still on the rise
“Riser,” the latest album from Dierks Bentley, is being lauded for its collection of mid-tempo tunes and ballads that find Bentley digging deeper than ever emotionally — a direction inspired largely by the death of his father two years ago and the recent birth of his first son.
For an artist who has been known for energetic songs such as “What Was I Thinking,” “Sideways” and “5-1-5-0,” the more restrained and contemplative material on “Riser” is a bit of a stylistic changeup for Bentley, who comes to Heinz Field this weekend as part of Luke Bryan's “That's My Kind of Night” tour.
The album, though, nearly leaned even further toward introspective balladry and mid-tempo material. That changed, Bentley says, when the song “Bourbon in Kentucky” was released as a lead single ahead of the planned release of the album.
The song — a slow burning, broken-hearted duet with Kacey Musgraves that's full of sadness and disappointment (“There ain't enough bourbon in Kentucky for me forget you”) — was not what radio wanted during the lighter, brighter days of summer 2013.
“You have a lot of fun things happening at radio, and all of a sudden you have this song that comes on that kind of just, some radio programmers told me, it literally stopped the station in its track,” Bentley says. “I had some guys who were real honest and just said ‘Man, it's a tough song for us to play. It's heavy.' But it was real.
“I was going through some stuff there. That was a dark song that I just gravitated toward. We put it out there and mainly saw that it was going to be a struggle and a fight. So, yeah, we pulled it.”
In abandoning what was going to be the lead single, Bentley decided to return to the studio and cut a few tracks that were more upbeat, both musically and lyrically — including “Back Porch,” “Sounds of Summer” and the next single from the album, “Drunk on a Plane” (currently No. 7 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and rising). Bentley thinks “Riser” became a better musical statement as a result.
“It was a good record and reflective of me and what I had kind of been through,” Bentley says of the original version of “Riser.” “But after ‘Bourbon' died and all of this time had passed by, I wasn't really in that moment. I wasn't feeling that way anymore. ... My son had just been born. I felt good.
“So, the record, instead of being so much about just a couple of certain moments in my life, really became a bigger picture of who I am over these last couple of years,” he says.
That said, “Riser” — while a quality effort — is not a safe album for Bentley. It still leans decidedly toward dark-hued ballads and mid-tempo songs rather then the kind of good-time rockers and romantic or nostalgic ballads that generally populate country-radio playlists.
Of course, taking risks is nothing new for Bentley. He steadily gained popularity over the course of his first three albums, and when his fourth CD, 2009's “Feel That Fire,” delivered two more chart-topping singles (“Sideways” and “Feel That Fire”), Bentley appeared ready to blast into the upper tier of country stars.
But instead of sticking to his winning mainstream country formula, Bentley took a stylistic detour and released a bluegrass album, 2010's “Up on the Ridge.”
“People said I was crazy. It would ruin my career,” Bentley says.
“Once you get settled in your career and you get going, it's really easy to get complacent and not take chances. But taking chances is what got you to that place to begin with. And one of the things ‘Up on the Ridge' did, I really felt like I reset my career clock when I made that record because, from that record on, I feel like I've been making records differently, with a lot more attention to detail in the songs, looking for outside songs, trying to make really the most complete albums we can.”
As it turned out, “Up on the Ridge,” if not a blockbuster, was a decent success, and when Bentley returned to mainstream country with his 2013 album, “Home,” he hit new heights with three No. 1 singles, while the album itself debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's country-album chart.
Now, with “Riser” and his ninth No. 1 single “I Hold On,” Bentley is out on tour. He plans to work in a few of the key songs from the new album with the rowdier selections from earlier albums.
“I love hitting my fans hard with the hits and up-tempo (songs),” Bentley says. “Most of the show, I'm running around. This show, I'll be leaving the stage and getting out in the crowd more than usual.”
Alan Sculley is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.