As successful as he's been in contemporary country music, Dierks Bentley has roots in bluegrass that have twice saved him from the more soul-sucking aspects of the music world.
The first time around, it was a '90s bluegrass scene based around a Nashville club called the Station Inn that he credits with keeping him in music. This time out, it was a series of recording sessions for his forthcoming Up on the Ridge, a down-home bluegrass-inspired acoustic album featuring famous friends like Del McCoury, Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill, Tim O'Brien, Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson.
Bentley's bluegrass epiphany and self-induced intervention came in the midst of a summer spent opening for Brad Paisley on his outdoor amphitheater tour. Although playing for as many as 20,000 fans a night might have been good for Bentley's career, on a musical level, it was a mostly miserable stretch of time.
"We were playing for about 45 minutes, and we weren't really allotted time for a sound check," he recalls. "It was really frustrating musically for us, to say the least. I just kind of sat there all year long going, 'I need to make music. I need to make great music that I'm proud of. I need to get away from this type of situation.'"
As the summer tour was winding down, Bentley was already thinking it was time to make the bluegrass record he'd always thought about doing. At first, he envisioned it as a side project, after which he'd buckle down to make his next mainstream country album.
But then he hooked up with producer Jon Randall Stewart and it became apparent this would be much more than that. In the end, Up on the Ridge grew in musical ambition and scope, evolving into something more like a musical event.
Along with its acclaimed guest artists, the album showcases five songs co-written by Bentley, as well as bluegrass-centric covers of songs by U2 and Bob Dylan.
"As soon as I started thinking about doing [U2 song] 'Pride' with Del McCoury and the Punch Brothers, I was like OK, we're not making a traditional bluegrass record," says Bentley. "This isn't going to be side project. It's going to be a career record for me."
The album won't be in stores until June 8. But because Bentley was already booked to do his usual country shows this summer, the Up on the Ridge tour runs from April 21 through May 22, well before the actual release.
Still, Bentley is too excited about this tour — in which he will be backed by his long-time friends from McCoury's band, the Travelin' McCourys (plus a drummer and steel guitar/banjo/fiddle player) — to worry about the disconnect between the album's release and the tour's timing.
"We're calling this a pre-release tour," he says. "It's just a chance for me to go out and have fun. I'm going to have so much fun on this tour I'll be grinning from ear to ear, because I just can't believe I get the chance to hang out with my best friends and play, and I get to be the Del of the Del McCoury Band, which are impossible shoes to fill.
"But hell, I'm going to stand up out there and try to do it."