The country star on the road, Nashville and kegs on stage.
by Dave Kelley
“The bus was out 318 days last year–but the actual shows we played were more like 240 to 250.” Dierks Bentley says that, and you can’t help but wonder why he’s working so hard. Just last year, the guy won the Country Music Association’s (CMA) “Horizon Award,” and the Academy of Country Music’s (ACM) “Top New Artist” award; the year before, he took home Country Music Television’s (CMT) “Breakthrough Video of the Year” hardware; and this year, he’s been nominated for “Male Vocalist of the Year” by the CMA and “Top Male Vocalist” by the ACM. At this point, it’d be hard to blame the guy for kicking back and riding on his good looks and charm. But that’s not the way he rolls.
“It’s a lot of time on the road,” he says, “but that’s really the way we make our fans – playing shows out on the road. One handshake, one cold beer at a time.”
That’s a line that could’ve been said by, well, just about any country music great, from Hank Williams to Willie Nelson, mostly because it’s true. Even in the age of MySpace and MTV (or CMT), real careers are built one fan at a time. “There’ve been people who’ve been able to achieve success through a lot of TV or a giant record,” Bentley says, “but they generally haven’t stayed around very long. And they don’t really get the die-hard fans who’ll go to the wall for you. We want fans who care about us.”
If Bentley sounds a bit old-school, it’s by design. He didn’t have the classic, hardscrabble upbringing that’s the stuff of country music legend. He was born in Phoenix, Ariz., and attended the prestigious Lawrenceville School (just outside Princeton, NJ). But don’t let his resume, his curly locks and his too-good-to-be-true name fool you. His path wasn’t exactly planned.
“It was definitely not my choice [going to Lawrenceville],” he admits. “A couple of guys I ran around with in Phoenix found ourselves getting in a lot of trouble, and it’s probably best I got out of there. I was really headed down not a very good road. Found ourselves getting arrested a couple of times and whatnot, so it was really for the best. And that’s really where I got turned on to country music. I left home when I was 14 years old and was really homesick. I was a stranger in a strange land and around people from a whole different background, and I really started to miss Arizona.
“Merle Haggard left home when he was 14,” Bentley points out, “and I left home when I was 14. It’s kind of the same thing. There’s this feeling of being alone, of being lonesome, that’s really prevalent throughout those years. I was in a place that didn’t even know where Arizona was. That kind of set me up for later on, in a weird, strange way.”
When he was 19, Bentley moved to Nashville, to chase the dream. “The day I got here,” he remembers, “I went over to the CMA and got a job interning, working for free. I figured at the CMA, they must know the most about country music. I could play guitar and sing, but I didn’t know anything about Nashville.”
He knew about hard work, though, and over the next few years, Bentley began building his base. He played, he wrote, he played some more. And unlike so many of his peers, he kept the long view instead of grabbing the quick and easy score.
“In terms of longevity,” he says, “I’d have to say I’d like a career like George Strait. As far as a live following and a show, the pinnacle of any music would have to be U2. The way they’ve been able to maintain the intensity of their live shows and their music. They’re still relevant today, and their old songs are as meaningful today as they were back when they came out. As a songwriter, that’s something you’re always striving for.
“I love artists,” he explains. “I love the singer as opposed to the genre. I love Merle Haggard, I love Johnny Cash. Willie Nelson. Waylon. When they were making their music, they never defined themselves as ‘country singers.’ Buck Owens did, but Merle Haggard called himself a songwriter. Johnny Cash was always more gospel, to me. Willie and Waylon, I don’t know what that is, but I like it.
“I’m not putting myself in that category, but I hope people listen to my music and don’t try to put it into a category, that they just hear singer/songwriter music.”
The music’s become a bit more meaningful, Bentley says, since his marriage in 2005. “It definitely seeps into the songwriting,” he says. “Most songs take on a deeper meaning. Even like the current single, ‘Every Mile a Memory.’ When I sing that, I think about my wife. There’s a lot of angst in the vocals and in the melody. I spend a lot of miles out there on the road.”
The road has claimed a lot of marriages, but Bentley believes it’s possible to be happily married and a happy wanderer. “We try to have a balance,” he explains, “to not spend more than four days apart. So she’ll fly out and meet me somewhere and ride the bus for a couple of days. Like any other couple, it’s a deal of trying to balance everything out.
“I miss home, but I tour because I love it. It’s not something I feel like I have to do. I love it. And my wife knows I love doing it. She’s like, ‘You need to get back out on the road. You need to go. You’re antsy.’”
Going out on the road will be easier this year, thanks to a sponsorship deal with Bud Light. “I’ve always been a beer drinker,” Bentley laughs, by way of explanation. “You know, I’ve had a keg on stage before, and when it comes to everyday beer, I’ve always been a fan of Anheuser-Busch.”
He’s quick to explain that the sponsorship’s not just about scoring a few free kegs, or even racking up some easy money for the retirement fund. “I’ve kind of held off on doing anything corporate,” he says, “because I like to be about the music and I don’t want to get too tied up with the corporate stuff. But it’s a great relationship and a really helpful one, because it’s not tied to anything. They don’t say, ‘Use the money for this,’ or, ‘Use the money for that.’ It’s, ‘Do whatever you want with it.’ They know me, and they know I’m going to put whatever I have, everything I have, back into the show. I don’t take any money out. If we get any extra money, that goes toward getting some more lights, or getting some more gear, or hiring some additional crew people. Anything to make the show more special.”
That begs the question: for a guy who plays 200-plus shows a year, do any of them stand out? “Dublin was the best,” he says immediately. “I’ve always wanted to go to Europe, via my guitar, you know? As in, my guitar led me, paid for my trip. Dublin was our favorite stop ever.”
Pressed, he confesses that it wasn’t just the gig that made Dublin special. “I’ll be the first to admit,” Bentley laughs, “I love a good Guinness. Especially when you go to St. James Gate and have one that’s about an hour and a half old. You go upstairs. There’s this glass, 360-degree tower. It’s amazing. You can see all over Dublin. You sit up there with your Guinness as long as you want. It was really, really cool.”
So, Dierks Bentley’s not exactly a “Behind the Music” story. Sure, he’s slated for mega-stardom, but it looks like this career won’t be littered with drugs, lust and some kind of bottoming out. But, there’s something just as engaging about a guy who simply loves to play his music, loves his wife and loves his dog. “Actually,” he corrects gently, “we have two dogs now, Jake and George.
“We were in the studio,” Bentley explains, “cutting this record, and Jake was going crazy, barking. We looked out the window, and there was this little, stray beagle-dachshund kind of thing. Usually, Jake doesn’t like other dogs, but he was really nice to this one, so I took this one home, because he didn’t have a tag. We put up signs everywhere, but we couldn’t find his owner, so now we got Jake and George.
“I’ve had Jake for six years,” Bentley says. “He toured with me some. The bus gets kind of crowded now. He doesn’t want to be out there. It was me and Jake for a long time there, but now I found him a permanent mommy, and he loves her more than me, and all is good.”
Right now, for Dierks Bentley, all really is good. Very good. •