For Dierks Bentley, it hasn’t mattered whether he was playing bars early in his music career, opening an arena show for a country superstar or playing on some level in between — the place where he’s most comfortable is on stage.
“I have some friends in NASCAR, and they’re so busy before the race,” Bentley explains. “I mean, there are so many interviews they’re doing, people are talking and pictures they’re taking.
“When they put their helmet on, that’s like the best (feeling). That’s when they’re the most free. That’s when they’re in their element. That’s how I feel, oddly, when I walk on stage in front of 20,000 people and it’s crazy, the madness, I feel the most relaxed and free and all of my worries and troubles just are gone. Just I feel the most present in that moment.”
It’s a good thing the Phoenix-born musician feels at home on the concert stage, because when it comes to music, he’s made a habit of pushing himself out of his comfort zone and looking for ways to evolve and grow with each album, including his latest release, Black.
“I think from the very start, we did something that was different,” says the 41-year-old, who returns home to play Talking Stick Resort Arena on Saturday, August 26. “The sound of that record and the guys who played on it, like Randy Kohrs playing dobro. No one had ever heard of Randy Kohrs before. And his style of playing is like that aggressive attack on the dobro, and the way he played, that dobro solo on that song, I think we started off on our own course, carving our own path.
“And there are times when I got away from pushing and exploring and going for new stuff, and those are the low moments of my career. “The times when I have gone after stuff, especially walking away from country music for two years and making (his 2010 bluegrass album) Up on the Ridge, there might not be an immediate payoff on that. It might not be immediate chart success. But in the long term, what that does, what it did at least for my career, is it put me in a place that widened my box and what I can work in.”
Bentley’s popularity has only grown since Up on the Ridge. He returned to country with 2012’s Home, an album that included two No. 1 singles (“Am I the Only One” and the title song) and pushed him closer to joining the top tier of country stars.
His success continued with the 2014 album Riser, which added three more No. 1 Country Airplay singles to his resume (“I Hold On,” “Drunk on a Plane” and “Say You Do”), and Black has done well so far.
“Somewhere on a Beach” became Bentley’s fastest-rising single and topped the Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts. “Different for Girls” gave Bentley a second No. 1 Country Airplay hit from the album, while the song “Black” went top 10.
“I’ve been touring for 14 years, and for me to be just now reaching my peak and playing for my biggest audiences and having my biggest hits, it’s not how I thought it would be,” Bentley says.
“I thought this would all be happening back in like 2008. But I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I’m having more fun than ever. Not only do I take it less for granted, I just put more into it.”
Especially with the latter two albums, Bentley has continued to push himself, crafting a sound that stands apart from much of what has been popular on country radio.
On Riser, he bucked the emerging “bro country” trend of hard-hitting, rock (and even hip-hop)-inflected songs about partying, the charms of hot chicks and the virtues of driving trucks with an album that leaned strongly toward emotional ballads and mid-tempo songs that looked at love, loss and perseverance. Songs like (“Bourbon in Kentucky,” “Say You Do,” “Pretty Girls” and the title track) had a darkly hued, atmospheric feel that mixed guitar rock textures with twangy acoustic tones—not exactly a sound that typified country radio.
Heading into making Black, Bentley didn’t initially have a defined idea for the musical direction he wanted to take or for a lyrical theme—until he started reflecting on his 10-year marriage.
He realized that as a husband and father in a committed long-term relationship, he could tap into a rich—and largely overlooked—vein of lyrical inspiration.
The stories created by Bentley, his co-writers and several outside writers aren’t all what some might expect given that source of inspiration. Yes, there are songs that celebrate the lasting passion in a long-term relationship (the current single “Black” and “All The Way to Me”) and appreciating the ups and downs of marriage from the perspective of the fairer sex (“Different for Girls”).
But Bentley and the other writers also examine darker emotions and scenarios that can exist in a marriage, such as jealousy (“Pick Up”), deceit and deception (“I’ll Be the Moon”) and the rush and regret of chasing relationships with “the other woman” (“Freedom” and “Roses and a Time Machine”).
“I really feel like there’s a theme throughout the whole album, and it came just through kind of looking at my own life and my own relationship and trying to write something that’s autobiographical and personal, but at the same time (also) trying to be as a songwriter exploring stuff that obviously I can’t explore in my own personal life,” he says.
“I give credit to my wife for allowing me to make it all public. But I do feel like it’s an album in its entirety that really does have a start, middle and a finish.”
The songs are given a distinctive musical setting by Bentley and his studio team of producer Ross Copperman, executive producer Arturo Buenahora Jr. and engineer F. Reid Shippen. Once again, the songs come with a good deal of atmosphere and tension—a feel Bentley says suits the emotional tenor of many of the lyrics. But the Black album rocks a bit more than Riser, thanks to tunes like “Freedom,” “What the Hell Did I Say” and “All the Way to Me.”
“I’m not trying to do anything other than make records that interest me and reflect the stuff I’m into right now,” Bentley says. “But I do think these last two records have a theme, have a sound. It’s not intentional. It’s just who we are in a room, between me and Ross and Arturo and the musicians. I like a lot of the spaces that exist in some of the songs and not trying to fill every gap in the sound. Like a good guitar solo, it’s all about the space between the notes as much as it is the notes. It’s all the feels and the space. So I think the overall sound — it’s a little more atmospheric at times.”
Even if Bentley has been creating a more textured sound recently, fans won’t have to worry about any lack of energy in a live show that figures to include lots of hits and a few songs from Black.
“I never want to lose the audience’s attention or break up the party, but at the same time, it would be weird not to do some new music,” he says. “So we’ll toss some songs in there we think make sense for the tour, but at the same time, we’ll still do what we do, which is try to throw a big party. It’s exciting.”
Dierks Bentley w/Cole Swindell and Jon Pardi, Talking Stick Resort Arena, 201 E. Jefferson Street, Phoenix, 800.745.3000, ticketmaster.com, talkingstickresortarena.com, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, August 26, tickets start at $31.