Launching a fashion craze was the last thing on Dierks Bentley’s mind when he released his 2003 breakthrough hit, ‘What Was I Thinkin’,’ from his self-titled debut album. But as soon as the infectious hook about a “little white tank top,” hit the airwaves, accompanied by a storytelling video spotlighting Bentley’s fluffy hair and Colgate smile, female fans, clad accordingly, began turning up at his concerts. Nashville, it seemed, had itself another idol.
Fast-forward a decade or so and Bentley is long past swoon status. He’s a multi-platinum, award-winning recording artist and respected songwriter and musician, as likely to headline a sold-out arena as he is to share a festival or club stage with bluegrass legends like Del McCoury. Bentley’s new album, Riser, is his eighth studio project. Released in February, it has already reached the top of the Billboard country album chart, making it his fifth number one album. While Riser has its share of radio-friendly tracks, they’re balanced by deeper cuts that showcase the darker elements for which traditional country music is best known.
Bentley’s musical chops began creeping into his recordings around the time of his second album, 2005’s Modern Day Drifter, when ‘Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do’ with its steel and electric guitar solos, became a top five single. The milestone, however, came in 2010, when he released Up On The Ridge, which featured an A-list of bluegrass musicians. ‘We were able to step away from the country music escalator, the machine, get off the grid and make a record that featured not only acoustic instruments but great musicians from all walks of life,’ he says. ‘We took this music and turned people on to bluegrass and acoustic music. Not only was that record personally satisfying; for folks in this town, it shed light on a different side of me that maybe they had forgotten about or didn’t know about.’
While his heart now lies in bluegrass and country music, like many musicians of a certain age, his formative woodshedding years were spent emulating the hair bands of the 1980s. Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, he had an epiphany while entering his teens. ‘My whole life changed at a birthday party when I was 13,’ he says. ‘I met a kid who told me that he played electric guitar. I didn’t comprehend that that was something you were actually allowed to do! I played saxophone in the school band; the electric guitar was something that the guys from Van Halen and AC/DC played. I went to his house the next day, and he had a Crate amplifier and a Hondo guitar and he knew some AC/DC stuff and some Poison power chords. I was like: “Oh my god!” It blew my mind. I don’t know why at that point I didn’t think you could participate. I always thought that was something you listened to, not that you could actually make that sound.’
When his friend upgraded guitars, Bentley took on the Hondo and Crate and dedicated himself to a repertoire of Whitesnake, Poison, Iron Maiden, AC/DC and Van Halen. ‘It was all about power chords and distortion pedals,’ he says. ‘I got a guitar teacher and he told me: “You should be learning on the acoustic, because you can hide a lot with distortion pedals and amplifiers. You can play sloppily and not hear it, but if you learn on the acoustic first, you’ll learn cleanly and it will sound much better when you play the electric.” I thought: “Acoustic? Man, that’s boring.” I don’t want to learn on acoustic. You don’t see guys on MTV playing acoustic. So I was like: “No, I don’t think so, thanks a lot.”’
He remained faithful to his instrument until another life-changing moment at 17, when a friend played him a Hank Williams Jr. song. Bentley fell in love with the combination of rock and roll guitars and country music. At that moment, he says, he found his genre and his voice. ‘You can’t sing along to an electric guitar, but you can sing along to an acoustic,’ he says. ‘All these guys at that time — Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart — were playing acoustic instruments. I started playing acoustic and didn’t pick up an electric guitar for a long time.’
At 19, Bentley relocated to Nashville. He spent three years working as a researcher in TNN’s tape room, and five years playing a weekly bluegrass gig at the Station Inn, often for a handful of people and free beer. He still performs there when his schedule permits. ‘I literally walked into that club and was introduced to a new kind of music that changed my perspective,’ he says. ‘What I learned most from working with the bluegrass community is proper attitude. They play for the love of music, not to be on CMT.’
For Bentley, as a country and bluegrass musician, C.F. Martin & Co guitars represented the Holy Grail of acoustic instruments. After years of saving for a purchase, he acquired a 1971 D-18 that accompanied him when he toured with George Strait as the opening artist. ‘A local stage hand was carrying instruments off our stage, trying to make room for George Strait, and he set the guitar down on a stand right in front of me as I was talking to another musician,’ he says. ‘He accidentally gave it a little bump as he walked away. It was just out of reach and just moving slowly enough that I could stand there and watch as it fell face first and the neck snapped in half. I had it repaired and I’ve still got it.’ His next Martin was a D-28 that was almost new at time of purchase, but is now often mistaken for a pre-war model. Years of playing have worn a sizable hole under the pickguard, Willie Nelson-style. ‘I’ve got a great picture of Willie pointing at that hole and laughing,’ he says. ‘I’ve put wood underneath the hole to stop it. I don’t want it to get any bigger.’
In 2012, C.F. Martin & Co introduced the HD Dierks Bentley model. The guitar has a classic Dreadnought shape, with East Indian rosewood back and sides and Adirondack spruce top. The red, white and blue Herringbone inlay pays homage to Buck Owens, one of his musical heroes, and a phoenix on the 12th fret represents his hometown. ‘The conversation started about three years ago,’ he says. ‘I’ve always had a relationship with the company because I play Martin guitars, but I never dreamed I’d have my own signature model. There are a billion musicians out there more deserving than me, but I do put that guitar in front of a lot of people night after night.’
Although passionate about guitars, Bentley is not a collector. Just as he still drives the truck that brought him to Nashville almost 20 years ago, when he finds an instrument that suits his needs, he stays with it. On tour, his go-to Martins are his D-18, and primarily his D-28 and signature model, with Ernie Ball Slinky 13 gauge strings. ‘They’re great for what we do on that big stage,’ he says. ‘The coating helps because it’s a sweat fest the whole time we’re up there. They really hold up and keep good tone and sound. They work well for us.’ For amplification, he relies on LR Baggs and Fishman Matrix systems. ‘We try, onstage, to get that combination of transducer pickup and microphone pickup,’ he says, ‘but any sort of microphone, even under a feedback buster, when you’re playing an amphitheater or arena for 15,000 people, the acoustic doesn’t have a chance, no matter how good it sounds. The LR Baggs and Fishman work well onstage because I can lean it back and put most of it on the transducer pickup on the bridge. If I’m playing a writers’ round or an acoustic show, I can try to get some microphone to kick in as well, because the feedback is lower. I used to run my guitars through an amp, but I don’t anymore. Our shows have a lot of volume, so even with an amp, an acoustic is not going to cut through two electric guitars, a steel guitar, drums and bass. If I’m playing at the Station Inn, my favorite is not being plugged in at all, and being able to work the microphone and lean in a little extra something, pull it back or do a rhythm thing and move in closer to the mic. Doing your own EQ is awesome.’
His playing style is a combination of fingerpicking and crosspicking, using Dunlop plectrums. As a rhythm player, he cites acoustic players like Tony Rice and Del McCoury as influences. ‘They really push the band with that rhythm and that chop.’ As a guitarist, Bentley sees his role as “laying down a solid rhythm, hanging in there with the bass and percussion, and letting the other guys play the higher lines.”
Playing rhythm is a far cry from his days of power chords and distortion, and while every youngster first picking up a guitar wants to play lead, Bentley agrees that rhythm is a craft unto itself and a more critical skill than many young players realise. ‘Oh, for sure!’ he says. ‘I learned it all from going to the Station Inn and paying five dollars every Tuesday night to watch The Sidemen play. The guitar player was Terry Eldredge, who plays with The Grascals now. His rhythm playing was unbelievable — playing ‘Molly and Tenbrooks’ by Bill Monroe at 120,000 miles an hour and being able to hang in there and still drive the band with acoustic picking. Bill Monroe described the tempo of bluegrass music as two trains going down parallel tracks with one train just slightly ahead of the other. It’s right on that edge, and that guitar player, if he’s playing it right, he’s just a little ahead, still on beat but at the front of the beat, providing a huge pocket and steering all those horses, steering the wagon. It’s a real skill. A lot of guys can go up and down the neck, but they can’t play with the drive of bluegrass.’
‘That’s what I love about guys like Terry Eldredge and Del McCoury, and obviously the guys like Tony Rice, who can do both. His flatpicking and incredible solo stuff — strip all of that away and just his rhythm playing is unbelievable. So yes, there’s a real skill to it. When I was 13 and learning to play guitar, I was trying to learn ‘Eruption,’ by Van Halen. I was watching as my friend continued developing those skills a lot faster than I did, because I didn’t have the natural thing for that type of playing, and I didn’t have that desire, either. I always found myself wanting to sing, as opposed to working on scales. You’ve got to play to your strengths. Good rhythm playing, when I listen to an acoustic record, I’m always drawn toward that.’
As a bandleader, it’s Bentley’s responsibility to “steer the wagon” and drive the band. Within that capacity, the dynamic among band members depends on the song, style, and even the venue. ‘In the summers, when we’re playing amphitheatres, there are some songs where I don’t have a guitar on at all,’ he says. ‘Songs like ‘Up On the Ridge,’ where we’re getting the mandolins and fiddles and banjos out, I try to play like my heroes and make sure I’m in the pocket. We’re all pushing and keeping the music slightly on tilt. When I’m playing bluegrass at the Station Inn with Scott Vestal, Jon Randall, Jason Carter and Sam Bush, I’m just trying to hang in there. I’ll be honest with you: I ain’t driving shit! I’m holding on for dear life! Sam’s driving the band down there. I’m just trying to hang in there with a smile on my face, because I can’t believe I’m standing next to these bluegrass giants.’
Millions of miles, albums and tickets into his career, Dierks Bentley remains as passionate and awestruck about music as he was when he first discovered the electric guitar. ‘Our shows are me and the band taking wood and strings and sounds, putting them together with the lyrics, and it creates this music that people scream and dance and cry over,’ he says. ‘That’s an amazing feeling, whether you’re playing for 10,000 people or 100. It’s two different ways of getting there, obviously, but they’re both equally rewarding.’
Whether co-writing for an album, performing onstage with his band, jamming at the Station Inn, or sitting in with bluegrass artists at festivals, Bentley believes in artistic collaboration as an integral part of any player’s musical growth and education. ‘I listen to bluegrass music a lot and play along to it,” he says. ‘One earphone’s got Flatt and Scruggs in it and the other has my guitar playing, and it sounds pretty good. Playing by myself, it sounds sloppy. Then I go onstage with guys like Del [McCoury], and the pocket is just so huge and fat and juicy. They make me feel like the best guitar player in the world when I stand next to them! It’s fun. It’s like songwriting. You write by yourself, try to get better, hit a wall, and then you write with other people, learn, improve, and then you go back and write by yourself. You keep climbing this ladder diagonally. The same thing goes with acoustic bluegrass music. You spend a night playing with those guys and it’s inspiring. You learn new licks, you learn new stuff about dynamics, and then you go home with new ideas to practice and work on. It’s really important to spend time playing with other people.’
Dierks Bentley’s Riser is out now.