Dierks Bentley: Right at Home (2012)
Dierks Bentley shares a rare look at what makes him tick.
Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but for Dierks Bentley, it evidently also makes his live shows rock harder. Since his two daughters, 3-year-old Evie and 1-year-old Jordan, arrived on the scene, Dierks has found himself reevaluating life on the road, approaching each performance with renewed vigor.
“It’s weird, but at this stage, I personally have to get more out of the show than I ever had in the past. Otherwise, what am I doing?” he contemplates one morning before a gig in Milwaukee. “I have two girls and my wife back home missing me, and it’s a sacrifice when you’re away from your family every weekend. Some guys in the band have kids too, and before the show, we huddle together and I say, ‘we have to make this worthwhile’.”
He pauses. “Not only for our fans, who spent their time and money, but also for us. I have to walk off that stage feeling like, ‘Yes, this is why I’m out here.’ And that makes the shows better than they’ve ever been.”
Clearly, family life has become even more important to the now 36-year-old Dierks, who speaks enthusiastically about daddy-and-me trips to the store, nights on the couch with wife Cassidy, and nature walks with the entire clan around a Nashville-area lake.
“The last family outing we took was to the rink. I had Evie on ice skates,” says the hockey enthusiast, hoping his older daughter has the same fire for ice that he does. “She’s going to be a hockey player whether she wants to or not.”
Simply put, Home is where Dierks’ heart is—and that sentiment is just one reflected on his appropriately titled new album. His sixth for Capitol Nashville, Home also symbolizes our national home, our romanticized rural home, and even the fleeting home of our youth, in songs like the jangly patriotic title track, the nostalgic “The Woods,” and the rebellious “Gonna Die Young.”
“There are a lot of young country fans out there and I love playing for them. I was 17 when I got into Hank Jr. and got turned on to country music. I still relate to that audience and those kids,” he says. “‘Gonna Die Young’ is a testament to them.”
But most of all for Dierks, the album represents a fresh musical home, the place where the traditional instruments of 2010’s bluegrass-inspired Up on the Ridge and the electric guitars and big drums of his radio hits intersect.
“Coming down off The Ridge and reentering the mainstream-country atmosphere, I had to take a hard look at my music. I thought it was important to make a record that had a definitive sound,” he says. “And I think my sound is those bluegrass instruments mixed with a little bit of rock energy.”
Dierks found that musical crossroads with help from Home’s producers Brett Beavers and Luke Wooten, and from Jon Randall Stewart, who produced Up on the Ridge and oversaw Home’s party-starting first single, “Am I the Only One.” It’s that song that begat the marriage between acoustic and electric. “It starts out with that affected banjo sound, and then it goes into a huge chorus that is pretty rock,” Dierks says, recalling the epiphany he shared with his producers after a reenergizing club tour. “I went back to the studio with Brett and Luke and said, ‘Just because I’m leaving the Up on the Ridge album doesn’t mean I leave behind the banjo, fiddle, mandolin and Dobro.’ I need to incorporate those instruments into a heavier-sounding record.”
Ultimately, the creative team accomplished just that. However, the album took a rather long year and a half to complete, due in part to the sheer volume of songs Dierks both wrote and sought out. “I wanted to get the best of my songs and the best of other people’s songs. I wrote more than I have for any album, listened to more than I ever have, and recorded more than I ever have,” he says, breathlessly recounting the effort it took to build this Home and the satisfaction he felt when he finally pushed “play” on the finished product. “I actually put the disc in my truck the other day for the first time, just [thinking], ‘Man, I can’t believe how much went into one album.’”
Even so, the work isn’t finished, as some fans learned firsthand when they were conscripted to do their share: At select shows, Dierks has been singling out an audience member to come back to his bus and listen to potential singles. Consider it a real-time record review. “It blows their mind, but for me it’s like the greatest research possible,” Dierks says with a laugh. “You can talk to the record label and to your friends, but the best people to play the songs for are just the guys and the girls in the front row.”
One of the candidates Dierks has been testing out on his guinea pigs is “Tip It on Back,” a dark song of boarded-up storefronts and drunken abandon. “It’s kind of the B-side to ‘Home,’” Dierks explains. “‘Home’ is a very positive song that things are going to get better. But ‘Tip It on Back’ is like, ‘Forget it. I’m just going to drink my worries away.’ And that’s what country music is often about.”
“Diamonds Make Babies” is arguably Home’s most catchy track, a humorous warning to guys considering popping The Question. The band has been regularly polishing “Diamonds” in concert, and the song has quickly become a fan favorite. At Dierks’ pre-Grammy Awards show last year at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the crowd sang along passionately. “‘Diamonds Make Babies’ always [gets] a great reaction. It’s a song that a lot of guys can relate to. Because once that train leaves the station, there’s all sorts of surprises waiting for you down the road,” he says.
And the devoted father knows of what he speaks. Babies care not if their daddy is a famous country star, and they’ll gladly wake him in the predawn hours of a rare day off. “The lack of sleep is the tough part,” he admits.
Still, he’s quick to point out that he can’t imagine the day-to-day without Evie and Jordan. “We were on the couch the other day watching some kind of mindless TV and Cass looked at me and said, ‘What would we do without these guys?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but it’d be so boring,’” Dierks relates. “Everything is hi-def with kids. It’s life in HD.”
Even the often mundane afternoons before a show. “When [the girls] come out, we rock it,” he says. “We’ll go to the YMCA, the pool, Wal-Mart, or just walk around the town square and go to parks.”
Dierks believes it’s important for him to spend time outdoors with his daughters. “There’s a song on the album called ‘The Woods,’ and the older I get, the more I find I make decisions based upon being outside,” he says. “Every chance I get, I take the girls on a hike. We do all that together.”
The Bentleys also room together when on the road, sleeping in the bus’s bunks. But with his regular ride approaching a staggering one million miles and overrun with the spoils of touring—“There are dirty clothes and guitars everywhere, and a cooler of beer with random bumper stickers all over it,” he laughs—Dierks reserves a new, separate bus for those occasions when Cassidy and the kids join him. Even if Evie would prefer otherwise. “She loves the million-mile bus because it has lots of cereal,” her daddy says.
Evie’s own sweetness finds its way onto Home. “Thinking of You,” the album’s closer, is Dierks’ heart-tugging promise to his daughter:
When I’m all alone, or in a crowd, in a quiet place, or where music’s loud
If I’m on the road, or in the other room, that’s how you know
I’m thinking of you.
It’s Dierks at his most disarming, revealing a vulnerable side he seldom shares. He’s a father needing his daughter, a patriarch pining for his family, a man missing his home. And it features Evie herself, singing the lyrics back to her dad at the tale end of the track.
It was a surprise cameo hatched by Cassidy. “I was alone in a hotel on my birthday and I got this email from my wife of Evie singing the song,” Dierks recalls. “It was the best and worst present of all time. She was so cute and it just killed me.”
Dierks continues: “I didn’t even think about [including it] on the record, but Luke mixed it in and played it for me. I’m not the kind of dude that would normally do something like that, put my daughter on my record, but I thought country music is so much about sincerity and honesty that it’d be dishonest if I took it off. Whether it’s cool or not, I don’t know, but leaving it on there is sincere.”
And it’s that quality that has come to define Dierks, as both an artist and a man. Whether he’s following his muse to record an against-the-grain bluegrass album, soliciting fans’ opinions on Home, or talking about the loneliness of touring, the Grand Ole Opry member always shoots straight from the heart.
“Two o’clock in the morning is a lonesome time on the road. The bus is rolling, the party is over and you’re lying in the bunk,” says Dierks. “My priorities are family, music, and really being present [in the moment]. I think they have been a little more sharpened after having kids.”
And with that, he gets ready to play another show, giving it everything he’s got to make it all worthwhile.
Side one: Cover Tunes
When Dierks Bentley released his self-titled debut album in 2003, he introduced the country-music world not just to himself, but to his beloved dog Jake, who posed with his owner for the cover. On Home, however, Dierks goes it alone—and Tweeted that his faithful pet was not going to be pleased by the omission: “Now the tough part…breaking the news to Jake that he isn’t on the cover.” Dierks laughs off the snub a few weeks later. “He’s doing great,” he says. “But I should have brought him on this run. He’s the best on the road.”
Despite the lack of Jake, Home’s cover is a doggone winner, a candid shot that shows the artist at his most comfortable. “I’m not a huge fan of photo shoots because a lot of times it’s these posed pictures where you’re wearing some jacket or shirt that you’ve never worn before in your life,” Dierks admits. “We were out in this little town in Texas and my manager said, ‘Let’s walk around and take some pictures.’ I grabbed my Stubbs hat that I wear a lot and they just got the shot.”
Dierks says he and his producers looked for guidance from the photo when selecting the final track list for Home. “I had about 20 songs that I thought would be great for this record and the last litmus test would be, ‘Does it fit that picture?’” he says. “I’m smiling a bit in it and I think this music has stuff to smile about. Everything had to go through that album cover.”
Side 2: Dierks Wings It with a New Hobby
With Dierks Bentley’s bus approaching one million miles on its odometer, it’s reasonable to expect a few bumps in the road. Fortunately, Dierks has a high-altitude Plan B for getting to gigs: by air. “I’ve been flying to some shows. I got my pilot’s license 15 years ago,” he reveals. “I had a little down time in December and I needed to switch gears in my brain, so I got way back into flying.”
Based out of a small Nashville airport, Dierks’ aircraft of choice has been a single-engine Cirrus, which he claims is a big step up from the Cessnas he flew years ago. “They were really just a tin can with wings,” he says, describing how flying planes has joined playing hockey and riding motorcycles as his primary interests outside of music. “Those are the things that I do to get away.”
All low-risk hobbies, right? Dierks laughs. “I tore my ACL, chipped teeth, and [needed] stitches from various escapades on stage, but no injuries from airplanes, motorcycles or hockey—knock on wood,” he says. “I think I hurt myself more playing country music.”