When you're atop your music field, you have two ways to go.
You can keep playing it safe, trying not to disrupt a good thing. Or you use your leverage to take some risks, hoping to pull fans along on your adventurous ride.
If you're in the latter camp, you have a friend in Dierks Bentley, the platinum-selling country radio fave who's decided to take a dramatic detour.
Bentley's upcoming sixth album, Up on the Ridge, is a collection of real-deal bluegrass and Americana music, peppered with covers of tunes by Bob Dylan and U2. Due in stores June 8, it includes guests such as Alison Krauss, Miranda Lambert and Kings of Leon's Angelo Petraglia, and features the instrumental work of top-shelf roots musicians such as the Punch Brothers and the Del McCoury Band.
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"I walked into a Nashville bar when I was 19 and heard bluegrass, and it changed my life," says Bentley, 34, a Phoenix native. "It's the power of those instruments with that three-part harmony. I've been telling my crowds, 'I hope it blows your mind the same way it did mine.'"
For an artist who propelled himself up the Nashville hierarchy with rollicking radio fare like What Was I Thinkin' and Feel That Fire, the new album is a bold statement: a declaration that Bentley hasn't abandoned the music he long ago fell in love with.
But getting there forced Bentley to don his salesman's cap.
"People in the country business, we all deal with the country music stereotypes. And then we'll turn around and stereotype bluegrass to some degree," says Bentley. "So there was some coaxing here and there. But Capitol Records has always been good about going along with my harebrained schemes. It was a matter of showing people that this was not going to be just some side project, that we're breaking the rules and trying to make a record without any genre limitations."
What the album most definitely is not, says Bentley, is a gimmicky record in the mold of the Pickin' On cover-tune series, which puts a bluegrass stamp on material by acts like Coldplay and the Beatles. He's confident that his cover of U2's Pride (In the Name of Love) avoids coming off as a novelty, managing to convey the song's depth and majesty in a unique musical voice.
"There's a huge void when you take that electric guitar out. So the question becomes: How do you fill that void with the right flourishes of acoustic instruments?" he says. "You can't just hit a power chord on the guitar. You have to work a little harder in how you get to the right spot, and hopefully at the end, it's equally as interesting and powerful. The key is that it's not just fun on the second or third listen, but that the depth is still there on the hundredth."
Such morphing isn't tricky for Bentley, whose versatility has helped him fit on stages at both the Grand Ole Opry and the Bonnaroo fest. A busy week earlier this month was neatly symbolic: Two days after basking in the spotlights of Jay Leno's Tonight Show, Bentley was in the heart of North Carolina for MerleFest, a rustic roots-music event. He comes to Churchill Downs in Louisville on July 23 for the HullabaLOU Music Festival.
"I've always been very fortunate to straddle the lines of the commercial world and this other world that a lot of people don't get a lot of access to," he says.
It's an open-ended approach that Bentley would like to retain through his career. He's already planning a fall tour that will assemble the best of all his worlds — "leaning heavily on volume and energy, but also really broken down where we're playing the grassy stuff."
"To be able to combine those two is my ultimate dream," he says. "I don't want to get stuck in a rut where you're going out with the band and the tour buses and the trucks just to feed the machine and keep it going. ... Your musical decisions can start getting affected by that pressure. I just hope to always make records that are honest and true."