It's a strange reputation for a music genre: to be known for sounds that can slip incognito into general pop-rock playlists and, at the same time, for lyrics that draw fairly narrow boundary lines. Contemporary Christian music fits the profile, but it's a special case, considering the genre was more or less founded on the notion of pairing devotional or evangelistic sentiments with styles borrowed from elsewhere in the popular music landscape. But it hasn't always been this way in country music.
Rightly or wrongly, country has come to be heard as an extension of the mainstream, arena-scale sounds of Eagles, Def Leppard and, of late, post-grunge hard rockers like 3 Doors Down, even as it's pegged as the home of lyrics that boil down a sense of country identity and values into list form. But there are still major players like Dierks Bentley — and the toasts of last week's Nashville Scene Country Critics' Poll, Miranda Lambert and Eric Church — who manage to cover their bases business-wise, respect their audiences and find some room to maneuver artistically.
The story of how Bentley came to be making country albums has been told before, but it's worth revisiting the Cliff Notes version. He arrived in Nashville in the mid-'90s, a 19-year-old Arizona kid who'd been turned on to country by the music of Hank Jr.
In hindsight, says Bentley, "I was so green. But I still moved here anyway, because I was so drawn to this town and country music. So I really moved here in a search for it, and I thought I'd find it, and the second I got here I kind of found something different was going on. I discovered Music Row first, in a way, through working with the CMA and working jobs on Music Row. I kind of found the business side of it first and kind of saw, you know, just a little bit of the package before actually seeing how it was made. It just wasn't what I was looking for, and it didn't look like it was as genuine as what I was hoping to find."
Then a friend invited him to check out crack bluegrass band The Sidemen at The Station Inn, and he went, expecting an older crowd but finding something else entirely. "I still remember, 19 years old, fake ID, looking to the stage and seeing a bunch of kids up there playing music, killing it," says Bentley. "And I was like, 'OK, here it is. This is what I was looking for.' "
Catch that? Bentley saw several sides of the country music business and plunged into the acoustic roots community — so deep that he became a pickin' party regular and followed The Del McCoury Band to a festival across the country — before weighing his options and signing his deal with Capitol a decade ago.
Bentley's self-titled debut and the two albums that came after it, Modern Day Drifter and Long Trip Alone, had original songs that not only turned heads but garnered Waylon comparisons, and their robust, rootsy instrumentation shared more or less equal billing with the electric guitar riffs. Even when Bentley stepped further into modern rock crossover territory on his fourth album, Feel That Fire, he kept up his habit of including a bluegrassy track — because he loves bluegrass and believes his listeners deserve the chance to hear it — and tapped Patty Griffin, instead of some mainstream diva, for a duet. Then came Up on the Ridge, a full-blown acoustic departure powered by pickers like the McCourys and The Punch Brothers.
Make no mistake: Bentley knew exactly what he was doing when he spent an entire album-making and promotion cycle on a project that wasn't primarily geared toward country radio. Says Bentley, with admirable clarity, "Jay-Z is right when he calls it 'the game.' Definitely there's music, and then there's the business side of music, and then there is the game. ... Music's just playing a guitar and singing. And the music business, I love that aspect of it, too. But the game is what you have to constantly kind of manage and not let it completely consume you.
"Yeah, it's hard to go, 'I'm gonna take myself purposefully out of the spotlight, and I'm going to just do this project that'll take me out of the game for a year-and-a-half.' But you've gotta do what you've gotta do. You only get one chance at it, and I didn't want to wait until the end to make this record that I wanted to make right now. ... And the cool thing is that country radio, when I came back, was there for me and we had a No. 1 song with 'Am I the Only One.' I feel really lucky to have that relationship with them, but also be able to do what I want to do."
The idea that Bentley can have it both ways was not one entertained by some of the people who chimed in online after roots-rock storyteller Jason Isbell tweeted in early January that Bentley had ripped off one of his songs. Said a commenter on the music blog Ninebullets.net, "I am guessing since Dierks is part of the Nashville machine that some anoymous [sic] writer actually wrote the song." As though Bentley's mainstream success precludes him from keeping ties with the roots world or being a serious songwriter like Isbell is a serious songwriter. (As for Isbell's compositions, this writer has been hit in the gut by plenty of them over the years; heavyweight stuff.)
Though Bentley says he hasn't read the blogs, he agrees he's a rather odd target for assumptions about mainstream mechanization, noting, for instance, that he's chosen left-of-center upcoming openers Will Hoge and The Cadillac Black.
The song at the heart of the online controversy — which, Bentley says, came up only once in the last interview-packed week — was the title track of his latest album, Home. The dustup shouldn't obscure what's most noteworthy about the song: It's the first major country song in the post-9/11 age to tackle patriotism without sounding like a fight song for sports team America — without even saying the word 'America.' He and his co-writers chose imagery that embraces diversity and ambiguity, oh-so-subtly suggesting in the process that there's more complexity to to Bentley, his fans and the country music audience as a whole than we might think.
"There are 300 million people living in this country," says Bentley. "There's just two sides to be on? Really?! When it comes to sports teams, maybe. ... But something as important as our country and everything this country stands for, to have two sides is really ... I'm just not gonna fall for that."