Imagine that you’re the president of a large record company. One of your most successful Country artists approaches you with the concept of making a bluegrass album. You’re pretty confident the album has little or no chance of radio airplay and that your artist could be talking about a year and a half or two off the charts, but he’s passionate and committed and willing to take the risk. What do you say?
If you’re Capitol Nashville’s CEO and President Mike Dungan and the artist is Dierks Bentley, you say “yes.” That’s the position Dungan found himself in two years ago when Bentley pleaded for the chance to cut “Up on the Ridge,” a bluegrass venture that would align him with some of the finest musicians of the genre. Although two singles were eventually released and the album received widespread critical acclaim (including two CMA and three Grammy Award nominations), it also effectively stemmed the tide of consecutive chart-topping successes Bentley had been enjoying at Country radio. But when the singer put out “Am I the Only One” in March 2011— his first Country single since “Up on the Ridge” — it instantly sandblasted a trail straight to No. 1 on the Billboard Country chart, securely reestablishing Bentley as a force to be reckoned with.
As Dungan describes it now, it was as if Bentley had never been gone.
“A lot of people said, ‘That’s really courageous for you and for Dierks to do this,’” said the label chief. “And sure, it’s always a concern when you lay off like that. But we always felt that it would just be a question of coming back with strong music. When you come back with something strong, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been off.”
“Am I the Only One” resonated with Bentley’s Country fans. But adding another wrinkle to the decidedly not-by-the-rulebook scenario was timing. The single was originally intended to be the first track from a Bentley follow-up Country CD produced by Jon Randall Stewart from “Up on the Ridge.” Since the album was nearly finished, Capitol strategically timed “Am I the Only One” to coincide with the album’s anticipated street date in 2011. But Bentley felt the album wasn’t ready and asked for more time. With label approval, the artist returned to the drawing board — and back to the same team of producers and musicians who had worked closely with him over nine years of Country successes. With Brett Beavers and producer and former engineer Luke Wooten at the helm, the project began to take on a more characteristic mainstream shape. Some songs were retained (such as “Am I the Only One” and “Home,” both produced by Stewart). Other songs were scrapped and replaced.
From a marketing point of view, the delay could have been costly. But Capitol decided to trust Bentley’s solid fan base and popularity at radio and released “Am I the Only One” in the spring of 2011 without an album waiting in the wings. The gambit paid off with Bentley’s first No. 1 hit since 2009 and bought needed time for the artist to fashion “Home.”
“This record reflects this time in my life,” Bentley explained. “It’s about my family, something I never had in the past. I’m married now, I’m a father. My records have always been a snapshot of my life. It’s never been about putting my voice with a great song and trying to make a hit, as much as where I am in my life and hoping that my fans can laugh with me or party with me or get serious with me.”
Believing the instrumentation, arrangements and song choices mirror a more matured perspective on his part, Bentley describes the record as having the power and the punch of modern Country though rich in traditional acoustic instruments, including Dobro and mandolin. Said Wooten, who has known the artist for more than a decade, “I think the bluegrass album really made Dierks step up his game in terms of his guitar playing. He matured so much lyrically and musically, and I think he gained a much-deserved credibility for his musicianship.”
Dungan put it a slightly different way.
“Dierks launched his career as a fun guy. But he’s developed into a much more serious artist. I think he got tired of singing the same kind of fun ‘frat boy’ themes. This record is a nice balance between the fun Dierks and the more sublime artistic side of him that’s who he is now.”
Another twist is that Bentley spent more time writing songs for this album than for any other album he’s made yet ended up including more outside material on the finished CD. (Six cuts are Bentley co-writes, six are by other songwriters.) The shift in balance was intentional.
“I can’t imagine how many thousands of outside songs I listened to and my producers listened to,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I really wanted this album to be a collection of the best songs I could find. I have a lot of friends in the songwriting community, and this was definitely a conscious attempt on our part to find great songs.”
“This is the first time Dierks has cut this many outside songs,” added Wooten. “It was a long year for him, because he put a lot of heart and soul into it. When you’re as prolific a songwriter as Dierks, it’s probably a difficult thing to do, but I think he felt like he wanted to do something different on this record. And that’s typical Dierks. He’s always trying to find new ground. When you listen to this album, it definitely is a Dierks Bentley record, but musically he goes to places he’s not gone before.”
Nothing exemplifies this better than the album’s title cut, “Home,” which Bentley wrote with co-producer Brett Beavers and Dan Wilson. From the moment it was released in October 2011, the song struck a deeply rooted chord with Country fans, showing all indications of becoming a bona fide signature record for its artist.
“When we were tracking that one, you could just tell the musicians, every one of them, knew it was something special,” said Wooten. “I remember it was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when we started working on it, and it was so obvious that everyone could feel that there was something really powerful happening with that song.”
Despite the somewhat unorthodox chain of events — how many other albums have their first single released nearly 12 months before the CD comes out? — Capitol’s Dungan is gladly taking a carpe diem marketing approach.
“First of all, we’re blessed with the fact that we’ll have had two hit songs on this record by the time the album hit (Feb. 7). That was not intentional, but we’re certainly working it to our advantage. Once we all got the shared vision of what Dierks was trying to do and understood that the album wasn’t going to be ready by the time we went through the life of the first single, we knew we weren’t going to be able to capitalize on momentum. So it became more a question of, ‘OK, now it’s going to be like a bonus. Now the album can have a sticker on it saying, ’Featuring the Hits!’ It’s not the first time in history that it’s been done this way. We’re going to lean heavily on the fact that there’s already value in this package.”
“Home” won’t disappoint die-hard fans of the artist’s lighthearted feel-good approach, with songs like “Diamonds Make Babies” (written by Jim Beavers, Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller),“Tip It on Back” (Tully Kennedy, Ross Copperman and Jon Nite) and “Am I the Only One” (Beavers, Randall and Bentley). Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town shares a duet with Bentley on “When You Gonna Come Around,” by Jamie Hartford and Gary Nicholson. Noting that “Little Big Town is so talented it’s ridiculous,” Bentley invited Fairchild to join him on the track; two days later they were in the studio together recording the tune. There’s even a strong family connection on this album: Bentley’s 3½-year-old daughter Evalyn makes an unheralded appearance singing with her daddy on “Thinking of You” (Beavers and Bentley), a bonus hidden track at the end of “Home.”
Bentley’s producers planned the child’s brief duet as a surprise birthday present for Bentley who was in Washington, D.C., that day, performing at the White House.
“It’s the last song on the CD, the CD is called ‘Home,’ and the last word sung is ‘home’ when Evie says, ‘Dada’s home.’ You know, we’re up there onstage trying to kill every night and there’s so much energy, but this song talks about the other 22 hours off the stage, the pain of missing someone. There’s no pain like missing a kid. I thought, ‘Am I really going to go there, put my kid on a record?’ But it’s true and honest and personal. Looking back on this album down the road, the years will go by, but I’ll always have this moment to remind me.”
With upcoming tours in Canada and Australia, and spring and summer festivals across the United States, Bentley is gearing up for what may be his biggest year. Country fans and radio are welcoming him back with open arms, and he’s got the full support of his record company.
“This is an artist that from day one we’ve been in love with,” said Dungan. “We want to be in his life for a long time to come.”
That feeling is mutual.
“I’ve still got a lot to accomplish as a songwriter and as a musician, but I’m taking things one step at a time,” summed up Bentley. “I really like how my life is going now. I wouldn’t do anything differently. I’m really looking forward to 2012.”