Not so many years ago, he was singing for tips in Second Avenue bars and soaking up country music history at his day job, working in the videotape copy room, at the late, great Nashville Network. Today he's among the most successful and relevant country singers in the business. Dierks Bentley has brought twang, romance and wit to the charts with ten top ten singles, including five number one's and rare musical nuance to his albums, all three of which have reached or are about to reach the coveted platinum plateau. He releases his first greatest hits album in May 2008, just five years into his major label career. All of which is testimony that Dierks has done things differently, taken charge of his own career and pledged allegiance to his fans. With six Grammy nominations and a trove of CMA, ACM and CMT awards, Dierks Bentley is looking forward to the kind of career his heroes had: a long one.
They say Nashville doesn't work like this anymore - that talented strivers with no connections don't stand a chance. But Dierks Bentley proved that Music City's engine still runs and that as a place for education, inspiration and validation it has no parallel. His self-directed master's degree in country music history and his warm embrace of bluegrass gave him a foundation to become a country music singer and songwriter who splits the atom, attracting adherents of the old school, the mainstream and the edge. Critics find him credible and fans pack his shows.
As busy and prolific as he's been since signing with Capitol Records, 2007 was perhaps Bentley's most extraordinary yet. He graduated from opening for the biggest names in country music to headliner status. He became the youngest active member of the Grand Ole Opry, and he took his wide-open country sound to the 90,000-person rock bazaar known as Bonnaroo. But for the hardest working man in country show business, any notion of a slow-down is out of the question. His Throttle Wide Open Tour, sponsored by Bud Light, will be revving its engines across the nation all year, and he's pulling together his first greatest hits release, with content, title and design chosen by the most important people in Bentley's life, his fans.
"2008 is all about the fans," Dierks said recently. "I can't think of a better way to get my fans involved than to have them actually act as executive producers of this record. I hope the end result will be the perfect album for the hard-core fan and also a really cool abridged version for the casual fan who wants to know more about what we've been up to the last five years."
Dierks Bentley's journey is all the more remarkable when you realize he wasn't raised on country music - that he found it on his own and grasped its poetry and legacy on his own in his late teens. He listened to country radio with his dad, and was a fan of television shows like Hee Haw and the Dukes of Hazard, but it wasn't until a friend made a point of turning him on to Hank Williams Jr. singing "Man to Man" that Dierks had his epiphany. "Everything just clicked," he has said. "It kind of felt like I suddenly knew what I was born to do."
He spent the next ten years proving that, getting himself into Vanderbilt University so that he could be near Music Row. He landed an internship at the CMA and later a job at TNN, where he gained access to decades worth of historic country music footage. He filled notebooks with classic and obscure country songs and spent hours at Nashville's Station Inn, paying close attention to the way the world's great bluegrass singers and pickers crafted their magic. He wrote songs and achieved his self-imposed goal of showcasing them at the famed Bluebird Cafe before his 23rd birthday.
The goal-oriented Bentley kept moving forward, with a self-released album that helped him land a publishing deal and launching what would be a hugely successful working relationship with songwriter/producer Brett Beavers. Bentley's frequent shows on Lower Broadway and Second Avenue in Nashville attracted fans to the barstools and incredible side musicians to his stage. Capitol Records took a chance on Dierks and let him call the shots on his debut recording, such as a pure bluegrass track with the Del McCoury Band, a move that seemed almost anathema to the usual laser-focus of new major labels acts on radio airplay.
Fortunately, Dierks succeeded on both fronts, building a grassroots base outside of country radio and wowing mainstream fans from his first single, the machine-gun fast and clever "What Was I Thinkin'?" That track spent two weeks at the top of the charts, and from there on out there were few speed bumps. He was named Music Row magazine's breakout artist of 2003 and he soon landed prominent slots on tours with superstars George Strait and Kenny Chesney. At the same time, Dierks insisted on playing smaller venues anywhere and everywhere they could reach on their bus. Fans who would have never found him on CMT or the radio were seeing him in rock venues and frat houses. A bit like Willie Nelson in the 1970s, Dierks aimed at building a coalition of music fans rather than targeting a predictable demographic.
Bentley's second album Modern Day Drifter produced the Top 5 single "Lot of Leavin' Left to Do" with its Waylon Jennings-inspired guitar signature and back-to-back No. 1 songs in "Come A Little Closer" and "Settle for a Slowdown." Then a third disc, Long Trip Alone, found insights in his life on the road and his even newer life of married bliss, a tension familiar to every major touring artist. Meanwhile, Bentley played four straight CMA Awards shows and four straight CMA Music Festivals. He toured repeatedly with grassroots country rock favorites Cross Canadian Ragweed, playing to raucous crowds. And he made a live DVD at a 4,000 seat venue in Denver, a film so vital it netted Dierks one of his four Grammy nominations for 2007.
He's spent most of the last five years looking at the world through a bus windshield and from a stage, so there was plenty of truth and life in the recent singles "Every Mile a Memory" and "Free & Easy (Down The Road I Go)," both of which reached No. 1. But it's not just travel and audiences that motivate Dierks. He's a focused, serious artist who is his own band leader and his own toughest critic.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself as far as upping the ante on every show," says Dierks. "Every night's gotta be more meaningful than the night before, or there would be no other reason for being out here. And every record has to be a step up from the one before. We haven't reached the point I'm trying to reach as a singer/songwriter or lead singer yet...in a way, I hope we never do...its more fun having something to work towards."