It's home-stretch time for Dierks Bentley.
The country star's show Saturday at Rupp Arena will be among his last concert dates of the year. Then he'll have three months off the road to record an album.
Three months. For an artist like Bentley, that's an eternity. But considering he has spent nearly all of 2009 touring — whether it was in Australia or in arenas across the United States as an opening act for Brad Paisley — any kind of break would seem luxurious.
But Bentley isn't complaining. In fact, the prospect of a year's worth of live performances coming to a close seems almost bittersweet.
"As soon as this tour ends, we're going to be off the road for a while," Bentley said. "So we're milking as much as we can out of these last few dates as far as hanging out with each other, checking out the cities we're playing in and, of course, rocking the shows hard. We're going to miss it when it's all over. But we still have a few shows left, thank goodness."
Doesn't exactly sound like a road-weary warrior, does it? But then Bentley has plenty of reasons to enjoy his working life these days. Feel That Fire, his fourth album (excluding a 2008 greatest-hits collection, Every Mile a Memory), has chalked up two No. 1 country hits: the leisurely electric title tune and the bluegrass-soaked roadhouse rocker Sideways. A third, a traditionally flavored ballad titled I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes, is poised to reach the Top 10.
"I'm biased," Bentley said when asked for an estimation of how well Feel That Fire stands up for him after a solid year of road work. "I would say it's one of my top four favorites of the albums I've made."
Of course, much of Bentley's year has been spent alongside Paisley, an artist who reaped even greater fortunes. But he said the dynamics of a performance didn't change greatly for opening sets he played on Paisley's American Saturday Night Tour.
"It's not our show at all when we're out with Brad," Bentley said. "It's our show for the hour we're onstage. After that — and before, really, too — it all belongs to Brad. And we're respectful and appreciative of that. We go out for the hour we get and pretend we're playing on our stage. We go at those shows as hard as we can with our greatest hits and make sure people are pumped up for Brad.
"It's a little bit different than what we do on our own. With Brad, there are maybe less dynamics and more of a punch, whereas our headlining shows are a little more rounded. Of course, keeping the energy level high is always a primary goal. But we also try to look for cool, more spontaneous moments, too."
As an opening act and as a headliner, Bentley, who turns 34 on Nov. 20, is no stranger to Lexington. Since his self- titled debut album with Capitol Nashville was released in the summer of 2003, the Phoenix-raised singer has opened dates at Rupp for Kenny Chesney (twice) and Montgomery Gentry, and he headlined his own concert in 2006. But a more curious Bentley show took place in 2004 just down the road from Rupp. That was when he became one of the only country celebs to play the now-demolished West Main Street location of The Dame.
"I like the variety," he said. "I'm not afraid to go anywhere. I think I'm one of the few guys in Nashville to play The Dame. I remember that show well. I know Kenny played there, too, on his tour, but that's about it. ... Playing different types of venues and different-size rooms is cool."
To make good on those words, Bentley said, he is considering a short tour of small halls after his winter performing hiatus, much in the same way Chesney annually prefaces his arena and stadium tours with a short run of club shows (such as the one that brought him to The Dame in March 2008).
"We've got plans to go out and play bars for a month — you know, you go out there, lose money and have fun.
"I love playing the big rooms. I love the feel of 7,000 people all singing together. A kind of magic is created in that. But at heart, I'm one of the last few honky-tonkers in Nashville. I moved there with just a guitar and practically grew up playing all those barrooms. I still like playing those places, too.
"I'm talking about when people are spilling tequila right there on your boots when you're onstage. That's a good thing."