Dierks Bentley isn't one to plan too far ahead — or maybe he is.
"I'm pretty much an in-the-now kind of person," he says. "I'm making this new record and I want it to the best record I've ever made. The one I'll always look back on, the one that my daughter will listen to years from now and say, 'Oh, yeah, my dad was cool!' That's my bar for this next record. I guess that's either looking really farsighted or shortsighted!"
Bentley is currently on an arena tour with fellow country star Miranda Lambert. In Knoxville, he sort of seems like a homeboy. He's been coming to the area since the days he performed at Big Mama's Karaoke. When he performed his acoustic tour for the bluegrassy album "Up on the Ridge," Knoxville's Bijou Theatre was one of his first stops. He also professes to have been a fan of lamented Knoxville favorites The V-Roys during the group's heyday.
"They're great. That was back when BR-549 was getting played downtown and that whole scene was taking off," says Bentley. "I was listening to the Derailers and Wayne Hancock — late '90s."
Born in Phoenix, Bentley spent part of his youth in Lawrenceville, N.J., and later moved to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt University. In Nashville, he began playing gigs around town. He signed with Capitol Records in 2003 and had his first hit with the song "What Was I Thinkin,'" which went to No. 1 on the Billboard country singles chart. More hits followed, including "How Am I Doin?," "Lot of Leavin' Left to Do," "Every Mile a Memory," "Come a Little Closer," "Settle for a Slowdown," "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)," "Feel That Fire" and "Sideways."
In 2010, Bentley took a detour with the album "Up On the Ridge," which had him backed by some of the greats of modern bluegrass and Americana music.
"I had no expectations going into it when I made that album," says Bentley. "I didn't play by any rules and I didn't consult a whole lot of people at the label."
Once he got approval from the head of Capitol Records, Bentley went full-steam ahead, knowing that it would throw fans and that country radio probably wouldn't play it.
"I've always made decisions from the gut for sure. That came strictly from I'd been on the road and thought I was sick of it. I'm an opening act doing 45 minutes and I want to do something creative and make the record I want to make. I just acted strictly on instinct. I've heard people say, 'Oh, that was a dumb career move and your career is over,' but I didn't really think about that."
It was, he says, a little scary.
"I can go play in front of 40,000 people at a festival and I'm excited to be on stage, but going into a bar or a place with 2,000 fired-up country fans — and we walk up with banjo and acoustic bass and no electric guitar — that's a good way to (expletive) your pants! These people are expecting volume and they're expecting to rock and you walk up with a banjo and an upright bass!"
Many fans, though, consider that tour and album to be a favorite.
"You gotta step away from it every now and then just to re-examine what you're doing. Otherwise you just churn stuff out to keep the machine going. It does add up. You've got a band and a crew and overhead. You've got to just feed the beast. It's hard to take a break from all of that and just walk away and take a break from that for just a second. But it certainly can be necessary, creativity wise."
He says it also helped him remember how to connect with audiences on a different level — a level without the big production.
"And that's one of my favorite parts of the show now. We build it up as big as we can, really crazy, and then we drop it back down and just grab the acoustic stuff, banjos and fiddles, and do something really broken down like that before we kick it back into high gear. Once you play these small shows long enough you can't wait until you can get back into the arena and crank up the volume and get that out of your system. So that's what's on the plate for now."
He's particularly happy to be on the road with Lambert, an artist he championed before she became an established star.
"It's like a gift, 2013, to be able to do this tour with her. So I'm just putting everything I have into making this our best tour, ever, and treating it like it's the last tour we're ever going to do. What would we do? We're going through every song, song by song, looking at 'em from every angle, breaking them up, coming back at them. Putting a lot of money into production and staging. Putting everything into it. Going back out with Miranda is like going back and re-living your senior year of high school one more time."
Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert
With: Lee Bice
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Where: Thompson-Boling Arena
Tickets: $49.75, $25, plus service charges, available at Knoxville Tickets outlets, 865-656-4444 and www.knoxvilletickets.com
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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