the latest album from Dierks Bentley, is being lauded for its collection of mid-tempo tunes and ballads that finds the Country singer digging deeper emotionally than ever before — 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.
The album nearly leaned even further toward introspective balladry and mid-tempo material. That changed, however, when the song “Bourbon in Kentucky” was released as a lead single ahead of the planned album release, Bentley says.
The song — a slow burning broken-hearter that’s full of sadness and disappointment, with backing vocals from Kacey Musgraves (“There ain’t enough Bourbon in Kentucky for me to forget you”) — was not what radio wanted during the lighter, brighter summer days of 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 tracks,” Bentley says. “I get that and I appreciate their honesty. I think some guys would have gone to the wall for me and continued to play it. And 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 the 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,” he says of the original album. “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 had just been born. 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.”
That said, Riser was not necessarily a safe album for Bentley. It still leans decidedly toward more darkly hued songs rather than the kind of good-time rockers and romantic or nostalgic ballads that generally populate Country radio playlists.
Emotionally, “Bourbon In Kentucky” isn’t the only moment in which Bentley expresses sadness, pain and frustration. “Here On Earth” is a song about his father’s passing in which he concludes there are no answers here on Earth for the turns that life takes. On “Damn These Dreams,” Bentley looks at the loneliness and regret that go with the benefits of his life as a touring musician.
There are also moments of steely determination in songs like “I Hold On,” now a No.-1 single, and on the album’s title song, which is about getting back up after being emotionally knocked to the ground.
Musically and sonically, Bentley took some chances as well. The only truly up-tempo song on Riser is “Back Porch,” a rootsy romp punctuated with banjo and twangy acoustic guitar. But the tone of the album is set by the more understated tracks.
Even lyrically lighter tunes like “Sounds of Summer” and “Drunk On A Plane” aren’t full-on rockers. Such musical twists were exactly what Bentley was chasing.
“The goal of it, when we were making the record, we thought, like a song like (‘Pretty Girls’), we could have gone in there and done four-on-the-floor kick drum and gone right for the jugular from the very beginning, like I’ve done in the past,” he says. “I just thought there are different ways to get to the finish line, to get to the same place. A song like that may be a little more subdued in its groove. It’s not so in-your-face. But at the end, it still takes the listener to the same place.
“I was searching more for groove and feel than I was for just obviousness on this record,” he continues. “I like the way it turned out.”
Taking risks is nothing new for Bentley. His rootsy major-label debut in 2003 put him on the map and he scored several No.-1 Country hits over the next few years. With 2009’s Feel That Fire, he delivered another pair of chart-topping singles (“Sideways” and “Feel That Fire”), and he 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. Bentley says he was advised it would ruin his career, but he was determined to take a chance.
As it turned out, Up on the Ridge, if not a blockbuster, was a 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. Riser also debuted at No. 1 and has spawned several hit singles.
“Once you get settled in your career and you get going, it’s really easy to get complacent and not take chances,” Bentley says. “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 reset 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.”
DIERKS BENTLEY plays Friday at Riverbend Music Center. Tickets/more info: riverbend.org.