By Alan Sculley
The man hasn’t become complacent with his success. Rather than follow a generic formula for an album, the 39-year-old challenged himself in new ways and explored his emotions. The result: his most personal album yet and Dierks Bentley has a story to tell.
Riser, the latest album from Dierks Bentley, is being lauded for its collection of mid-tempo tunes and ballads that find Bentley digging deeper than ever emotionally – a direction inspired largely by the death of his father two years ago and the recent birth of his first son.
For an artist who has been known for such energetic songs as “What Was I Thinking,” “Sideways” and “5-1-5-0,” the more restrained and contemplative material on Riser is a bit of a stylistic changeup for Bentley.
The album, though, nearly leaned even further toward introspective balladry and mid-tempo material. That changed, Bentley said in a recent phone interview, when the song “Bourbon in Kentucky” was released as a lead single ahead of the planned release of the album.
The song – a slow-burning, broken-hearted duet with Kacey Musgraves that’s full of sadness and disappointment (“There ain’t enough Bourbon in Kentucky for me to forget you”) – was not what radio wanted during the lighter, brighter days of summer 2013.
“You have a lot of fun things happening at radio, and all of a sudden you have this song that comes on that kind of just, some radio programmers told me it literally stopped the station in its track,” Bentley said. “I had some guys that were real honest and just said ‘Man, it’s a tough song for us to play. It’s heavy.’ But it was real. I was going through some stuff there. That was a dark song that I just gravitated toward. We put it out there and mainly saw that it was going to be a struggle and a fight. So yeah, we pulled it.”
In abandoning what was going to be the lead single, Bentley and his team took a second look at the album and decided to return to the studio and cut a few tracks that were more upbeat, both musically and lyrically – including “Back Porch,” “Sounds of Summer” and the recent chart-topping single from the album, “Drunk on a Plane.” Bentley thinks Riser became a better musical statement as a result.
“It was a good record and reflective of me and what I had kind of been through,” Bentley said of the original version of Riser. “But after ‘Bourbon’ died and all of this time had passed by, I wasn’t really in that moment. I wasn’t feeling that way anymore. I was feeling much more, my son (Knox) had just been born (in October 2013). I felt good.
“So the record, instead of being so much about just a couple of certain moments in my life, really became a bigger picture of who I am over these last couple of years,” he said.
That said, Riser – while a quality effort — is not a safe album for Bentley. It still leans decidedly toward darkly-hued ballads and mid-tempo songs rather then the kind of good-time rockers and romantic or nostalgic ballads that generally populate country radio playlists.
Of course, taking risks is nothing new for Bentley. He steadily gained popularity over the course of his first three albums, and when his fourth CD, 2009’s Feel That Fire, delivered two more chart topping singles (“Sideways” and “Feel That Fire”), Bentley appeared ready to blast into the upper tier of country stars.
But instead of sticking to his winning mainstream country formula, Bentley took a stylistic detour and released a bluegrass album, 2010’s Up on the Ridge.
“People said I was crazy. It would ruin my career,” Bentley said. “Once you get settled in your career and you get going, it’s really easy to get complacent and not take chances. But taking chances is what got you to that place to begin with. And one of the things Up on the Ridge did, I really felt like I re-set my career clock when I made that record because from that record on, I feel like I’ve been making records differently, with a lot more attention to detail in the songs, looking for outside songs, trying to make really the most complete albums we can.”
As it turned out, Up on the Ridge, if not a blockbuster, was a decent success, and when Bentley returned to mainstream country with his 2013 album, Home, he hit new heights with three No. 1 singles, while the album itself debuted at No. 1 on “Billboard’s” country album chart.
Now with Riser having also debuted at No. 1 on “Billboard’s” country album chart, produced chart-topping hits in “I Hold On” and “Drunk on a Plane,” as well as a top five single in “Say You Do,” Bentley is promoting the album with a headlining tour of amphitheaters this summer, mixed in with some festival dates including Aug. 29 at Gexa Energy Pavilion. Bentley figures to stick mainly to his hits.
“The band loves the new songs and loves Riser. But right now, the set list is pretty rocking and perfect for amphitheaters,” Bentley said. “I think about making a set (and I think back) to my first country shows. That’s what I loved about them, that energy, and I was out there on the grass and I probably stealing somebody’s beer, just the energy and the fun and I definitely like to keep that up.”