05/13/2010

Detroit Free Press: Up On The Ridge Album Review

Dierks Bentley takes a risk on his rootsy new album BY BRIAN McCOLLUM DETROIT FREE PRESS POP MUSIC WRITER When you're reigning atop your music field, you've got two ways to go. You can keep playing it safe, trying not to disrupt a good thing. Or you use your leverage to take some risks, hoping to pull fans along on your adventurous ride. If you're in the latter camp, you've got a friend in Dierks Bentley, the platinum-selling country radio fave who's decided to take a dramatic detour. Bentley's upcoming sixth album, "Up on the Ridge," is a collection of real-deal bluegrass and Americana music, peppered with covers of tunes by Bob Dylan and U2. Due in stores June 8, it includes guests such as Alison Krauss, Miranda Lambert and Kings of Leon's Angelo Petraglia and features the instrumental work of top-shelf roots musicians such as the Punch Brothers and Del McCoury Band. "I walked into a Nashville bar when I was 19 and heard bluegrass, and it changed my life," says the 34-year-old Phoenix native. "It's the power of those instruments with that three-part harmony. I've been telling my crowds, 'I hope it blows your mind the same way it did mine.' " For an artist who propelled himself up the Nashville hierarchy with rollicking radio fare like "What Was I Thinkin' " and "Feel That Fire," the new album is a bold statement: a declaration that Bentley hasn't abandoned the music he long ago fell in love with. But getting there forced Bentley to don his salesman's cap. "People in the country business, we all deal with the country music stereotypes. And then we'll turn around and stereotype bluegrass to some degree," says Bentley. "So there was some coaxing here and there. But Capitol Records has always been good about going along with my harebrained schemes. It was a matter of showing people that this was not going to be just some side project, that we're breaking the rules and trying to make a record without any genre limitations." What the album most definitely is not, says Bentley, is a gimmicky record in the mold of the "Pickin' On" cover-tune series, which puts a bluegrass stamp on material by acts like Coldplay and the Beatles. He's confident that his cover of U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" avoids coming off as a novelty, managing to convey the song's depth and majesty in a unique musical voice. "There's a huge void when you take that electric guitar out. So the question becomes: How do you fill that void with the right flourishes of acoustic instruments?" he says. "You can't just hit a power chord on the guitar. You have to work a little harder in how you get to the right spot, and hopefully at the end, it's equally as interesting and powerful. The key is that it's not just fun on the second or third listen, but that the depth is still there on the hundredth." After a month of touring to promote the upcoming album, playing bluegrass-oriented gigs with members of McCoury's group, Bentley will largely slip back into standard mode for his Friday set at the WYCD Downtown Hoedown, sprinkling the new material into an otherwise familiar performance. "It'll be a straightforward Dierks Bentley show -- uptempo, rocking and fun, all the hits," he says. "The Hoedown is a party environment. I want to make sure people are having a good time." Such morphing isn't tricky for Bentley, whose versatility has helped him fit on stages at both the Grand Ole Opry and the Bonnaroo hippie fest. A busy week earlier this month was neatly symbolic: Two days after basking in the bright spotlights of Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," Bentley was in the heart of North Carolina for MerleFest, a rustic roots-music event. "I've always been very fortunate to straddle the lines of the commercial world and this other world that a lot of people don't get a lot of access to," he says. While the album's title track has crept into the Top 40 of Billboard's country chart, it's not yet clear how the new material will fare at country radio over the long haul. But WYCD-FM (99.5) morning host Steve Grunwald applauds the move by Bentley, a personal friend who has hosted Grunwald at his Nashville ranch. "He's just one of those artists. He's got a lot of good songs, and he keeps going up and up and up. The ladies love him -- he's a nice guy, and he's good-looking," says Grunwald. "I'm sure it scares the people around him when he wants to go off and do something drastic like this. But I think it's great that Dierks, as an artist, can do what he wants to do. This is his own personality." Bentley's billing at the Hoedown is a coup for WYCD, which often must convince acts to ditch $100,000 paying gigs elsewhere "to come up here for free or next to nothing," as Grunwald says. Alongside fellow headliners Uncle Kracker (Saturday) and Zac Brown Band (Sunday), he represents a Hoedown bill -- and country music landscape -- that continues to become musically diversified. It's an open-ended approach that Bentley would like to retain through his career. He's already planning a fall tour that will assemble the best of all his worlds -- "leaning heavily on volume and energy, but also really broken down where we're playing the grassy stuff." "To be able to combine those two is my ultimate dream," he says. "I just hope every record is never playing it safe. I don't want to get stuck in a rut where you're going out with the band and the tour buses and the trucks just to feed the machine and keep it going. You don't want to lose your momentum, but your musical decisions can start getting affected by that pressure. I just hope to always make records that are honest and true."