Any serious conversation regarding the local performance history of Dierks Bentley eventually references a night in 2004 when the country star found himself onstage not at Rupp Arena, where he returns this week as a headliner, or even a glitzed-up theatre or honky tonk.
No, it lands at the long-since-demolished Main St. club The Dame where he shared a bill with the Oklahoma rock troupe Cross Canadian Ragweed.
He remembers the night well, but still received a reminder from Ragweed frontman Cody Canada, who will be playing The Burl with his current band The Departed the same night (Feb. 21) that Bentley returns to Rupp.
“I’m looking at a text message from Cody right now,” said the hit-making voice behind recent country hits like “Women, Amen” and “Burning Man.” “‘We’ll be in Lexington the same time you are. Let’s hang out.’ What are the chances of us being there the same night?”
“I still have a poster of the Dame concert with us and Cross Canadian Ragweed. It was such a great night. You know, we sold out Madison Square Garden last year. But Madison Square Garden doesn’t stick out any more for us than The Dame did.
“For me, it’s all about playing music. I mean, I’m not going to say it’s never about growing. It’s always nice to play bigger places. But the focus is on where I am and making the best show I can and having it be the most fun. And the most fun comes from when you’ve done all the work.
“You’ve got to work to write the songs, you’ve got to work to make the album, you got to work to put the tour together. Then you get to go up and have a great time on that particular tour.”
An Arizona native, Bentley was eager to draw on his heritage for his most recent recording. What took hold, though, wasn’t the Southwest, but rather the mountain terrain of Colorado. Encouraged by his wife to spend some songwriting time in Telluride, where he had previously played as part of the city’s prestigious bluegrass festival, Bentley headed to the mountains — specifically, a solar powered mountainside facility called Studio in the Clouds.
No wonder Bentley provided the resulting 2018 album, a mixture of the bluegrass inspiration that dominated 2010’s “Up on the Ridge” and the more electric drive of 2016’s “Black” with a seemingly obvious title — “The Mountain.”
“I had a little glimpse of an idea about the West and trying to acknowledge where I’m from, whether it was sonically or maybe a little bit lyrically in some way. But I’ve always loved Telluride. I went there for five days to write and everything started coming together. I went back out there to record. I’ve never been on a writing retreat. I’ve never gone somewhere like that to record an entire album, so I felt very inspired.”
One of the album’s highlights, the heavily bluegrass-savvy “Travelin’ Light,” teams Bentley with recent Grammy winner — and Grammy ceremony showstopper, thanks to her vocally resplendent performance of “The Joke” — Brandi Carlile.
“I had the song ‘Travelin’ Light’ and was thinking of somebody great to sing it with. I thought about Brandi and then ‘The Joke’ came on the roots radio station here in town. It was like her voice just came out the speakers and grabbed you. I thought ‘This is a sign, man.’”
While Carlile is indicative of the high-profile company Bentley is increasingly keeping with his music, the act that will kick off his Rupp show — which also features singers Jon Pardi and Tenille Townes — is an unknown. Or is it?
The band billed as Hot Country Knights is actually a working excuse for Bentley to pull double duty. He serves as a costumed frontman for a cover band specializing in ‘90s era country hits. So how is it working out for Bentley to be, in essence, be his own opening act?
“It’s working out pretty good if you like ‘90s country and a little bit of theatre. This is a way to keep audiences engaged and give them a little something extra. Besides, it’s something we’ve always wanted to do, which is go back and sing cover songs. I was talking with Jon Pardi’s drummer and he told me, ‘As most artists stay in this longer, they find out ways to do less. You’re the only guy I know who is actively looking for ways to do more.’ It makes for a busy night, but it’s so much fun.”
If you go:
Dierks Bentley/Jon Pardi/Tenille Townes/Hot Country Knights
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 21
Where: Rupp Arena, 430 W. Vine
Call: (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000