For Dierks Bentley, every album is like a new quest and discovery. While some artists go into projects with an idea of the sound or style they want to explore, Bentley is Mr. Clean Slate.
“I go into every album knowing that I don’t know what I want to talk about. That might sound kind of weird. But I don’t go in there with an agenda,” Bentley said in a recent phone interview.
“I definitely don’t think I know anything. So I’m not going to draw back on themes that I think are strong, or I feel I write well about, or my growing up, or my childhood, or the way I was raised. I try to go into albums with a blank slate.”
Although Bentley might not have known what kind of album he was going to make, he knew where he would go to bring his latest, “The Mountain,” to life. Over the preceding decade, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival has become a favorite destination for Bentley, first as a fan and later as a performer.
“It’s a pretty special spot. I went out there in 1997 kind of following the Del McCoury Band, followed them out there. It was so awesome, a fun deal,” Bentley said. “I’ve been back [other] times since then. I played it in 2010, well, in 2010 on the bluegrass record (his album, “Up on the Ridge”). I played the night before the opening night and then came back [in 2017] and played the main stage, which was just so awesome and a great experience…I just felt so creative out there that I wanted to come back and write.”
So Bentley, who has racked up 17 chart-topping singles over his previous eight previous albums, gathered up six of his favorite Nashville-based songwriting friends and headed west for six days of unsupervised creativity.
The songwriting session helped bring the themes of “The Mountain” into focus -- both the beauty of Telluride and the idea that every person faces challenges they need to overcome, their own personal mountains to climb and conquer.
“When I got to write with those songwriters, I had some [song] titles, but there was still no meat. It was just trusting the process,” Bentley said. “I guess I’m just trying to write about the way I feel. I don’t spend a whole lot of time on social media and I don’t hang with a bunch of other like singers in this town. I guess I’m on my own island in a way, which for me is musically good, I think, for me to just do my own thing.”
To record “The Mountain,” Bentley brought along Jon Randall Stewart, who produced Bentley’s bluegrass album “Up on the Ridge,” and Ross Copperman and Arturo Buenahora Jr., who produced Bentley’s two previous albums, “Riser” and “Black.” He said he felt they could create a cool mix of “rootsy” acoustic and more modern sounding country-rock.
“Having these guys work together on this album, they really brought out the best of the two worlds I love – rock, with huge sounds and just interesting sounds,” Bentley said.
The mix of rustic rootsy country and rock is achieved on songs like the title track, whose sturdy and spacious sound fits the name of the song, “Woman, Amen” and “You Can’t Bring Me Down,” a pair of tunes that generate a pleasant ramble. In the recent single, “Burning Man” (a top five single), blasts of guitar and driving beat get the album off to a dynamic start.
These songs play a big role in giving “The Mountain” more punch and energy than “Riser” or “Black,” which were weighted more toward ballads and mid-tempo material. But “The Mountain” has several fine ballads as well, including the lovely “Religion” and “Stranger To Myself.”
“The Mountain” also continues a trend for Bentley of writing albums with a thematic thread and a personal connection to his life. The album paints a portrait of a man approaching middle age, liking the place he’s reached, but also recognizing life offers much more to accomplish, learn and enjoy.
The title song is about meeting and embracing life’s challenges and opportunities. “Living” clearly delineates the difference between existing and truly living and appreciating life. “Woman, Amen” (a recent No. 1 single on “Billboard” magazine’s Country Airplay chart) is about Bentley’s wife, Cassidy, and the lasting source of love, faith, hope and inspiration a man can find in a woman.
Such thoughtful and honest lyrics help Bentley stand out in a country genre filled with its share of songs about pickup trucks, drinking beer or hanging out in honky tonks.
Bentley is trying to bring the themes of “The Mountain” to life on his current tour, using video and stage sets that evoke the double meaning of the album title.
“The physical mountain makes me feel so happy and alive when I’m there, which is the way I want fans to feel when they come to my show,” Bentley said. “I want them to feel like they’re standing on top of a mountain and having a great night. But the metaphor is there’s a struggle and a climb. It’s a really interesting thing. That really engages me, and when I’m engaged, the show benefits as well.”
Sculley, a freelance music writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.