Washington Post: Up On The Ridge Album Review
From the Washington Post:
Dierks Bentley veers into bluegrass territory on new album 'Up on the Ridge'
By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, May 14, 2010
On his new album, "Up on the Ridge," Dierks Bentley eschews mainstream country for a stringband sound. For the project, he recruited such stars as Alison Krauss and Kris Kristofferson.
With seven No. 1 country singles, Dierks Bentley has earned a lot of clout on Music Row. And with it, he has pursued a project he always dreamed of.
Next month, the 34-year-old singer is releasing "Up on the Ridge," an album of acoustic string-band arrangements, and he is previewing the material in a tour that lands in Washington and Baltimore next week. His hit singles have tended to be funnier, sexier and fresher than the competition, but they all fit into the '70s rock sound that dominates Nashville these days. His new record ditches that formula entirely, trading drums and amps for banjo, dobro and mandolin.
"A lot of people think I've gone off the deep end. They think it's a crazy move after having all those number one hits," Bentley says on the phone from a Georgia stop on the tour. "But in country music you get locked into a brand, and it can become a stranglehold that makes you repeat the same thing over and over again. In rock music and other genres, though, it's cool to do other things. Why can't we have that freedom in country music?"
Although there were a lot of doubters, the people Bentley trusted the most -- his wife, Cass, fellow hitmaking outlaws Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson, songwriter pals Jon Randall Stewart and Shawn Camp, and bluegrass heroes Alison Krauss, Del McCoury and Tim O'Brien -- thought it was a great idea. Stewart wound up producing the project; he, Camp and O'Brien contributed songs; and Krauss, McCoury, Lambert and Johnson contributed vocals. The result is one of the more remarkable major-label country albums.
Bentley was just 19 when he moved from his home town of Phoenix to Nashville in 1995. He was so green that when a friend suggested they go hear the bluegrass band the Sidemen at Nashville's Station Inn, Bentley recalls saying: "Bluegrass? You mean like Roy Clark playing the banjo? That's old people's music." But he went anyway and made a discovery that he compares to "Columbus discovering America. Bluegrass had always been there, but I knew nothing about it."
Back in 1995, before the surrounding neighborhood was gentrified, the Station Inn was a white cinderblock building isolated in an industrial wasteland. "But when you walked inside," Bentley says, "it was like entering a time machine. They had the seats from Flatt & Scruggs's bus and posters of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers on the walls. It was very welcoming place; everyone took me under their wing."
Even when Bentley signed with Capitol Records and started scoring mainstream country hits from 2003 onward, he made a point to put at least one bluegrass song on every album, usually with members of the Del McCoury Band. Ronnie McCoury, Rob McCoury and Jason Carter, who were all members of the Sidemen that very first night at the Station Inn, are now touring with Bentley under the name of their side project, the Travelin' McCourys. The three pickers are all over "Up on the Ridge," and Del McCoury, Ronnie and Rob's dad, sings a duet with Bentley on U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)."
"Del is such a hero of mine," Bentley says. "He's such an icon in the bluegrass field, but he's adventurous enough to also cut Frank Sinatra and Tom Petty songs. So I thought it would be cool to have him sing a U2 song. I could hear him singing it, but I didn't want to have Del with a bluegrass band because that would be so predictable.
"I was saying all this to Jon [Randall Stewart] over whiskeys in my kitchen, and he said, 'What about the Punch Brothers? They play bluegrass instruments, but they're not bluegrass.' The next thing I knew we were on the plane to Brooklyn to cut with those guys."
The Punch Brothers, led by Chris Thile of Nickel Creek fame, ended up backing Bentley on three tracks for "Up on the Ridge," including Bob Dylan's "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)," a choice inspired by the version from bluegrass legend O'Brien. O'Brien, in turn, helped Bentley write and sing "You're Dead to Me," a hilarious exaggeration of a breakup song. Kris Kristofferson added vocals to his old song "Bottle to the Bottom."
"I'm old-school," Bentley confesses. "For me the coolest cats are always the oldest ones. . . . These guys lived through a period that we're all nostalgic for, and they're a lot more interesting to be around than people my age.
" . . . [Bluegrass musician] Peter Rowan said something on stage one time that stuck with me: 'If you want to be like your heroes, you have to spend some time with them, even if it means driving their bus.' Terry Eldredge, the lead singer of the Sidemen, was my hero, so I spent as much time with him as possible, even hanging out at his house. I learned more about country music from this leader of a Tuesday night bluegrass band than I did from anyone on Music Row. Now I've been able to repay a little of that debt."