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Dierks Bentley Cultivates the Common Ground of Country and Bluegrass with ‘Up on the Ridge’

Posted by Webb on 08/18/2010

By Lorie Hollabaugh

© 2010 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

On hearing the very first notes of the swampy riff that would become the title track of his new album, Up on the Ridge, Dierks Bentley knew that he and co-writer Angelo (Petraglia) were onto something that wouldn’t be encumbered by genre titles. And so the original plan of writing for two separate projects, one Country and one bluegrass, was shelved; instead of trying to serve two masters, they decided to just let the music come.

“When Angelo played me that riff, that was the turning point,” Bentley recalled. “I remember hearing that, going, ‘Well, that’s a Country thing. It’s definitely a bluegrassy vibe. I don’t know what this is exactly, but it has to be on the record I’m making.’”

Inspired to put together an album that reflects his love for bluegrass and acoustic music, Bentley approached his longtime friend Jon Randall Stewart to produce. “I kept thinking about who I would get to work on this,” Bentley said. “I know Tim O’Brien. I know Alison (Krauss). I know Sam Bush. They’re all friends. But I kept thinking about Jon Randall and how far back he goes. He’s like the Kevin Bacon of Nashville: He knows everybody, he’s played with everybody, he’s one of the most talented overall musicians in Nashville — he’s unbelievable!”

“We were sitting, having some whiskey, and he said he was thinking about making this record and would I help,” said Stewart. “I said, ‘Have you lost your mind? You’re on your seventh No. 1 and you want to make a bluegrass record with your buddy?’ But as we sat there talking, we realized bluegrass is like every other genre: The boundaries have stretched. Dierks and I grew up listening to New Grass Revival, The Seldom Scene, Alison Krauss and all those people, so for us it was, ‘Let’s use that as our template. Let’s incorporate it.’ And the very first thing we thought of, which should tell you how crazy all this is, was the idea of doing a U2 song (‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’) with Del McCoury.”

As they began recruiting a cast of bluegrass heavyweights and guests, it became clear to Stewart that the toughest part of the process involved coordinating schedules for Bentley, engineer Gary Paczosa, and Sam Bush, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Kris Kristofferson, Miranda Lambert, Punch Brothers and Chris Thile, among other invited artists.

“The toughest thing about this record, when you have special guests and a smaller budget, is trying to get people in on the same day,” Stewart said. “It’s ridiculous! Scheduling was a nightmare because you’ve only got so many musicians that know how to play this kind of music. Then there are only so many guys if you step out of Flatt-and-Scruggs bluegrass. These aren’t your normal A-team, Country session guys, because it’s a whole other kind of music.”

From hatching the idea to laying tracks in the studio, Up on the Ridge took shape in ways that have little to do with business as usual along Music Row. Though radio and critics would eventually validate the album as the right project at the right time in Bentley’s career, Bentley did have a few initial concerns about changing things up and going acoustic at the top of his game. But he’s never been one to make his music according to trends or popular opinion — a characteristic that’s affirmed throughout this successful experiment of an album.

“I think the first thing I asked myself was, ‘Do you want to call this a side project and kind of have an out? Or do you believe in what you’re doing and want to stand up for it and act on faith and put your money where your mouth is when it comes to why you go into doing this?’” said Bentley, who co-wrote five tracks on the album. “You get known for a certain sound you’ve established — or you get known for having curly hair and you cut it off. People like to think of you as one thing, and Country is all about having a brand. But as a songwriter, it’s not just about winning the game all the time. It’s about trying to make great music that you will be excited about and taking a chance to veer left or right a little bit. I love playing for large audiences. I love what we’ve built. I don’t want to do anything to take away from that, and I don’t think I am. I think I’m just adding to it. Hopefully my fans that have been asking for me to do this for a long time, they know who I am. My records have always had a bluegrass song on there. This is just me reclaiming part of what makes me who I am.”

Bentley’s record label knows better than anyone what this artist is about, which is why they’ve treated Up on the Ridge exactly as they’ve treated each of his other four studio albums — except, perhaps, with even greater anticipation and excitement. “They totally have been behind it. I know how lucky I am to have (Mike) Dungan and the whole Capitol team. He’s kind of like the Herb Kelleher of Country Music,” Bentley said, referring to the Co-Founder and former Executive Chairman, President and CEO of Southwest Airlines. “He makes a team environment and gets excited and passionate about stuff, and he hires good people.”

As President and CEO of Capitol Records Nashville, Dungan has the insight and experience to know that veering into uncharted musical territory can be dicey. Yet if the artist has talent and vision, and the music is an organic, honest fit, that can more than mitigate the risk. “Mike Dungan was great. He just said, ‘Go make a record.’ Of course, Dierks has had seven No. 1s, and we’re going to make a bluegrass record … great! No pressure on me,” said Stewart, with a laugh.
“It’s always a risk to step out into a side project like this,” Dungan said. “However, the music is so good and this was such a natural fit for Dierks that we were pretty confident that no matter what, we would have quality at the end of the line. And that’s exactly what we got. This is a kid who moved from Phoenix and discovered that whole acoustic world at the Station Inn and became a regular down there, first in the audience and then getting up onstage and playing with anybody and everybody. This is so much a part of Dierks’ general makeup and I think he found this record easier to make than a regular Dierks record. It’s such a natural fit for him and he knows the genre and the players and the music so well.”

Despite the rootsy skew throughout Up on the Ridge, Dungan decided to stick with what has become Capitol Nashville’s established strategy for marketing Bentley’s work. “Everyone who heard the record was flipped out about it,” he explained. “So we just ended up marketing it the way we would a mainstream record with the addition of joining forces with Vanguard Records and leaning on their expertise in the bluegrass world to make sure we have all our bases covered in that area.
“The one thing that’s probably going to be the biggest driver of this is television,” Dungan continued. “The minute the TV bookers saw what this project was about and who the players were and the fact it was Dierks Bentley behind it, they jumped on it. In fact, in a lot of cases, they wanted him to come on the show probably before we would ordinarily want him to come on. We would like a lot of these appearances to hit around street date, but we’ve been doing them ahead of time because the bookers have been so anxious to get Dierks in place. TV bookers in general have an appreciation for things that are authentic, and I think that’s what they saw in this.”

If authenticity does indeed open media doors, then Up on the Ridge, which premiered on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart at No. 65 in June, may achieve the goal Bentley has for bringing the sound and feel of bluegrass and traditional acoustic Country to new markets. “A lot of people who like bluegrass may hear this and go, ‘It’s not bluegrass. It’s got drums and electric bass,’” he reflected. “Then Country fans may hear it and go, ‘That’s hardcore bluegrass.’ Different people will hear different things. I just hope my Country audience gets excited about hearing these acoustic instruments and these songs, and I hope the bluegrass people will love what we’ve done with some of these songs like ‘Bad Angel’ or ‘Bottle to the Bottom.’ There’s a Country circle and a bluegrass circle, and I tried to lay them on top of each other and find common ground in the two worlds. And I think this record really does that.”