february 2009

Hello, Toby, Hello, Trace. This Is Dierks. I Got Some Hurly-Burly Goin' On Here. Listen Up

By David McGee

Dierks Bentley
Capitol Nashville

A howling comes across the soundscape—rising and repeating, urgent, ferociously intense—and ascends into space. An acoustic guitar, furiously strummed, follows, then a pause, and the drums enter booming, setting the stage for Dierks Bentley's plaintive, muscular vocalizing, telling the tale of a fugitive's life lurking in the shadows, leaving behind the female component of his one-night stand, the law hot on his heels. "All I care about right now is speed," he declares in the chorus; earlier he has asserted, "living your life on the run/you can't give your heart to no one." Those two sentiments form something of a mission statement for Feel That Fire, Bentley's entry into the brawny country belter sweepstakes following new albums by Toby Keith in November (That Don't Make Me a Bad Guy) and Trace Adkins (X) in January. As for the speed part, though there are some beautifully conceived quiet moments on Feel That Fire, the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for the most part is one of aggression and maximum RPMs—only four of the dozen tracks shift into reflective mode (not an unusual allotment for a country album of this length), whereas the other eight match or exceed in intensity the furies Toby and Trace unleashed on their new long players. Bentley flat brings it on Feel That Fire in a way that evokes the electrifying energy of one of his piledriving live shows. As for the "can't give your hear to no one" attitude, you begin to notice after a listen or two that our Dierks—while revealing nuanced feelings relating to finding peace of mind in troubled times (in the lilting, banjo-inflected ballad "Beautiful World," wherein Patty Griffin adds an affecting, reedy second voice to Bentley's heartfelt longings) and in the detritus of a whirlwind romance in the aching but uplifting sentiments addressed to the distaff half of the ill-fated union in a spare, spiritually resonant ballad, "Pray"—is more seeking or appraising the heat emanating from the female of the species. In music by turns roiling and charging hard, he and his co-producer/songwriting partner Brett Beavers craft an aural juggernaut out of spitfire electric guitars, hard-strummed acoustics, strictly powerhouse percussion, emotionally rich steel guitar, with banjo, mandolin and "gang vocals" providing additional country and gospel atmospherics in a hard country environment. Hurly-burly is loose upon this land, but in this case the tumult and commotion in question add up to a grand triumph of modern mainstream country music making.

By the sheer force of his personality and conviction, Bentley makes his songs (and they are all, except one, his songs—he's a co-writer on 10 of the 12 with Jim and/or Brett Beavers and another longtime conspirator friend, Rivers Rutherford) meaningful and memorable; those who come to mainstream country in a skeptical frame of mind would be hard pressed to deny the authority or the passion with which these tunes are presented for our approval. If Dierks wants to go skirt chasing, let it be said he does it with flair. Both "Sideways" and the title track roll out on propulsion provided by a banjo—skittering in "Sideways," herky-jerky in "Feel That Fire"—and "Sideways" goes for the big finish with one of those "gang vocals" of a "na-na-hey-hey" variety. Their narratives come from different places, the former being a no-holds-barred appreciation of a gal in a honky tonk, "in your blue jeans and white tank top," nameless—as is the one-night-stand partner in the album opener, "Life On The Run"—who's only purpose is to drive him wild; but "Feel That Fire" is cut from pricier cloth, being a slightly rustic toe-tapping appreciation of a gal whose raison d'etre is to experience to the hilt all life has to offer—to "feel that fire"—and to have someone who'll join her in embracing the edge of possibilities; Bentley's soaring vocal says it all about his willingness to go along for the ride, "to walk alone out on that wire, to make her feel that fire," as the steel howls and the electric guitar sputters behind him. Another tandem of songs—the driving southern rocker, "Little Heartwrecker," and the smoldering, steel-drenched, midtempo ballad, "You Hold Me Together"—also documents a similar point of view, respectively, the nameless hottie who loves then leaves her guy with only the comfort of a sad song on the honky tonk jukebox to mend his broken heart, and the woman faithful and true whose support and love seemingly makes all things possible.

But to what degree has Dierks himself really surfaced in these songs? Less than Toby and Trace have surfaced in their new albums, but he's here, in widescreen HD on an anthemic tidbit co-written with Rivers Rutherford, "Better Believer." Stomping, chiming and soaring all the way, the verses describe a man who's been dealt a very good hand in life but questions whether he deserves it, owing to his bald-faced admission of taking too little time to thank the man upstairs and too much time building "my heaven here," because "when my life's going like I want God becomes an afterthought." He practically wishes for ill fortune, singing, "Life is seen more clearly through our tears." If "Better Believer" is Bentley's soul talking, his heart may well be found in the album's closer, the bluegrass barnburner devoted to that old demon alcohol's call to heal a broken heart in "Last Call," penned by Ronnie McCoury and featuring Ronnie on mandolin, his brother Rob on banjo and an uncredited but familiar-voiced tenor duet partner otherwise known as the pater familias of the McCoury family, along with Bryan Sutton on acoustic guitar, Randy Kohrs on dobro, and McCoury band stalwarts Alan Bartram on upright bass and the great fiddler Jason Carter. Bentley and Del are practically giddy exchanging verses on this good-humored sprint, and both men leave plenty of room for each instrumentalist to add a dazzling solo to the proceedings—it's bluegrass picking and singing at its finest. And therein lies a clue. Bentley's state of the art arena shows typically feature an acoustic segment in which his deep affection for traditional country and bluegrass is abundantly evident, and throughout his career he's been fairly vocal about his love of roots music. The man knows bluegrass, and feels it in his bones. Toby and Trace may always be Toby and Trace, but Dierks, in another decade or so, might well follow his muse to where the grass is blue, getting back to where he once belonged. At the end of "Last Call," when the music stops, the track continues, leaving intact the studio chatter and laughter all around. Someone says, "Believe I'll have another," and the record's over. You have to believe Dierks Bentley probably will have another, just like "Last Call."

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024