Nashville has turned dream-chasing into an industry and a mythos. The classic story (hungry young artist comes to town as an unknown and becomes a star) has endured because it does in fact keep happening, if not as frequently or as lucratively as it did in the 1990s. I never had aspirations of being a performer, but one of the joys and fulfillments nobody ever tells you about is the thrill of watching somebody else make that climb. And since my motivation in being here is to bear witness to and tell stories about music, I've been fortunate to have had a close-up seat and a personal connection to one such ascendancy, and that's the career of Dierks Bentley.
I met Dierks in 1997, the first full year I'd been in town. He was the roommate and cousin of a banjo player I'd come to know through Station Inn jams. I got to know Dierks as a very good guy who was very serious about country music's history and who had a great built-in bullshit detector at a time when the industry he was interested in was having a variety of bullshit-related issues. Dierks studied the historic country music films he had access to as an employee of TNN, and he made notebooks full of lyrics and charts of classic and obscure country and bluegrass covers. He kept putting bands together out of some killer local bluegrass/acoustic players like fiddler Jason Carter and drummer Rick Lonow, and I would go see Dierks play at Market Street Brewery on Second Ave. Dierks had a sense of direction, but there was no way of telling that he was going to reach big audiences.
Then it happened. He landed a publishing deal. He made a solid independent album with a traditional backbone and modern stylings. He parlayed that into a deal with Capitol Records. One of my favorite Nashville moments came when Dierks and I had lunch at the old Pie Wagon and he took me to his truck to play the first mixes of some of the music he was making for his debut, including "What Was I Thinking" and the song that sold me on his absolute credibility: "I Wish It Would Break." His voice was still finding itself, but the material and the approach were more than enough to make up. This stuff was really good - and per my experience watching other really great, Americana-leaning artists go to the major labels and country radio, it was easy to imagine the machine tagging him as one of those guys "we just didn't now what to do with." Of course that didn't happen. "What Was I Thinking" went to Number One, and began the amazing string of success he's enjoyed.
Dierks has always had a wary, intelligent relationship with the industry that's done so much good for and so much harm to country music. He has a way of striding the divide between authenticity and commercial appeal. And one way he's done that has been to put a bluegrass song on each of his country albums. Now, he has gone a big step further with Up On The Ridge, a full album of bluegrass and roots songs due for release June 8. I wrote the bio for the album that's posted on DB's website. It is posted below in full.