Dierks Bentley Interview: Personal Songs From ‘Riser’ Make Him ‘Uncomfortable,’ But ‘In a Good Way’
Dierks Bentley has changed directions … again. Ping pong balls stay in one place longer than the country veteran’s musical focus, and his ‘Riser’ album will once again redefine his sound for the next phase of his life. Bentley tells Taste of Country he likes it this way. If he’s not changing, he’s not growing. And the last two years have brought about a lot of both.
For the first time since his self-titled debut in 2003, Bentley worked with a producer other than Brett Beavers, the Robin to his Batman on a mainstream country album. Fans will notice, he says, but the emphasis was on song quality, not studio tricks or touch-ups.
“You listen to how much country music has evolved and changed,” the 38-year-old shares during a phone call as his son Knox sleeps nearby and his dog Jake stands obediently over him. “The sound is so different. There is a lot of detractors from all the sounds that are happening right now, and I totally understand that, but a good song is a good song, whether it’s telling a story or making you feel something.”
‘I Hold On’ is a good song. The new album’s (available Feb. 25) title track may be even better. The songs in between reflect the last two years of Bentley’s life, including the death of his father, Leon, and the birth of Knox, his first son and little brother to Evie and Jordan.
“I’m uncomfortable, but in a good way,” the 2014 Taste of Country Music Festival headliner says. “I should be a little uncomfortable at times while making a record.” Bentley also opened up about the most personal songs on ‘Riser,’ the album that defines his career. He talks quickly, pacing his answers like lyrics from his rowdiest songs. The Dierks Bentley of 2014 is much more confident than the singer from 2004. A healthy marriage, happy family and ten No. 1 hits will do that for you.
ToC: Watching you perform the song ‘Riser,’ and listening to you talk about it, it feels like you hold it among the most important songs of your career.
"The smart money is get a brand and beat it to death, but I like to play around."
Dierks Bentley: I do. I do. One of the things I did for this record is really try to find outside songs. I think I had a string of 17 songs in a row that I personally wrote that went to radio. And that’s kind of neat and all, but — I always thought I was looking for outside songs — but this record I have discovered that you can go deeper.
Luckily, I found ‘Riser.’ The song just spoke to me. It kind of became the centerpiece of the album, because really when I started to work on the record, my dad had just passed away, and (as) I finished the record, my son was born. So I went from two extremes, really being pretty down and new territory as far as grief, and then an all new realm of having our first son.
This song, on so many levels, it’s something I wanted to bring, something I want to sing, I want to say. I want my fans to hear it and feel it and inspire them to get through tough times. It’s definitely different from what’s getting played on radio but that hasn’t stopped us before from trying.
That’s certainly true, and especially the last five years or so, you’ve shown a willingness to take chances with your music.
Yeah, I’m probably the only current country artist who has a gigged booked at the Station Inn on the 29th [laughs]. I love bluegrass music, I love acoustic music and I try at the right times to push that a little bit.
If you look at your catalog, you see a shift in between ‘Feel That Fire’ and ‘Home,’ with ‘Up on the Ridge’ in between. Did something change there that brought about the shift?
Probably the record that will define a lot of my career is ‘Up on the Ridge,’ because it’s just a ‘before and after’ type of record for me. Just trying to come back and make music — it’s more of a bluegrass album, very little drums or electric guitar — just try to come back and make a country record that had drums and guitars and takes on themes that are running through my life.
"Music is my first love, and I can’t step away from her."I feel like after ‘Up on the Ridge,’ I came back with a fresh slate and it just further encouraged me to make every album totally different. ‘Up on the Ridge’ is what it is, ‘Home’ is that and this album ‘Riser’ is a different production team, and I wrote with a lot of different people. I don’t want to get locked into the same sound or anything. It’s anti-branding. The smart money is get a brand and beat it to death, but I like to play around with sounds and I like the songs to reflect where I am in my life right now. Not always be writing about high school or this and that.
What song was most influenced by the passing of your father and which was most touched by the pending birth of your son?
I wrote a song called ‘Here on Earth,’ and the hook is there’s no answers here on earth. Basically, searching for the “why” when someone passes away, and I feel really fortunate that my dad lived as long as he did. But no matter what happens or how it happens, it’s certainly a stinker. So that song is inspired by him. It talks about standing at the cemetery and in the end realizing that no matter how much you look or try to find answers here on earth, there are no answers here on earth. They’re somewhere else. Whatever you believe, that’s how you gotta find those answers.
There’s a song called ‘Damn These Dreams’ that speaks about just the pool of two loves. The love of music and the love of family. Music is my first love, and I can’t step away from her. I love music and I love playing and living the dream, but I also miss my family. That song is a lot about my girls and Knox and being away from them. It’s the most personal thing I’ve ever kind of put out there as far as a song goes about this particular lifestyle.