Dierks Bentley never had a recording experience quite like the one he encountered while making his ninth album, The Mountain. Since the whole project was inspired by the beauty of Colorado, it only made sense for Bentley to venture far from Nashville’s Music Row, where most country albums are churned out, and actually record it in a venue called Studio in the Clouds just outside of Telluride, where the country star keeps a vacation home.
The solar-powered studio lived up to its evocative name. “It’s in the San Juan Mountains overlooking views for days,” Bentley tells Billboard.
But when he first arrived, the singer-songwriter was greeted by the discomfiting sight of studio owner Alan Bradbury “carving up an elk using a table saw. He had bits of flesh all over him” and his wolf hybrid dog was “protecting the carcass,” Bentley vividly recalls with a laugh. He describes Bradbury as “a total mountain man” on the outside. “But then you come in [his studio] and he’s all about the essential oils, and the vibes and the pot brownies.”
Bentley was so enamored by this “great, gentle spirit” and his beautiful facility that he enlisted Bradbury — also a musician — to sing background vocals on a couple of the concept album’s tracks. He also recruited pals — and current Mountain High Tour openers — Brothers Osborne to play on the set’s likely second single, “Burning Man.” Brandi Carlile adds vocals to the bluegrass-influenced album track “Travelin’ Light.” And Sam Bush lends his mandolin skills to a pair of tracks.
The album recording session was actually the second time Bentley has taken a group of musicians to Colorado to work on the project. At its genesis last summer, he brought a herd of top Nashville songwriters to Telluride to write songs for the album, hoping they’d be inspired by their surroundings.
It worked. Most of its eventual 13 tracks came out of those sessions, including an obvious one titled “Goodbye In Telluride.” Bentley had a hand in writing 10 of those tracks, including the project’s hit lead single, “Woman, Amen,” currently at No. 3 on the Country Airplay chart and No. 8 on Hot Country Songs.
While many of Bentley’s biggest career smashes have been the kind of anthems that get crowds fired up in concert, The Mountain is a bit heavier, more contemplative and — surprise — completely devoid of ditties. Yet it is not without its joyful moments, and a positive spirit imbues the tracks.
With plenty of fun, older songs like “Drunk on a Plane,” “5-1-5-0,” “What Was I Thinkin’” and “Somewhere On A Beach” already populating his live set, Bentley felt he could take a chance on this album by focusing on creating a cohesive, themed set without having to worry about including any new party anthems.
“I want to take fans to that place where you move beyond fun into that next thing of just feeling so alive,” he explains of his potentially risky creative decision. “I can just see people out in the lawn seats listening to something like ‘You Can’t Bring Me Down’ or ‘Living’ and [they feel] joy, like I’m hitting them on a deeper level.”
At a Nashville listening party for the album in May, Bentley joked about the fact that when he turned the completed album in to the head of his record label, Universal Music Group Nashville chairman/CEO Mike Dungan, he didn’t hear back from the executive for a month. In a later conversation he said he got “blunt and very honest” feedback from Dungan about the project, but also plenty of support and encouragement.
Now 15 years into his recording career — all of it spent on Universal’s Capitol Records Nashville imprint — the happily married father of three says his focus these days is on his own musical evolution, and he’s simply more interested right now in songs about life than songs about love.
“Back when I was first starting off, love songs helped you get through a heartache,” he says. “Young me back then got beat up by love. I had a girl I was so crazy about that, when she started seeing somebody else, my hair was coming out in the shower in clumps. I lost all this weight. Then I tried to work out to get over her and I got a hernia.” George Jones’ songs were among those that helped him through that time in his life.
While The Mountain does contain a couple of love songs, Bentley says most of the tracks are about “what’s important to me now — life and living, being grateful, being present and being conscious of every moment. On every record I’m trying to dig a layer deeper and be more authentic,” he adds.
He wrote nearly 60 songs for The Mountain, which meant ultimately disappointing his littlest A&R reps — his children — who fell in love with certain songs that didn’t end up being a fit for the project. But Bentley sees that as a positive. “If you do enough work and put the time in, you’ll be lucky enough to have arguments at the end where you’re fighting for a song, and leaving some great songs on the floor,” he says of his discussions with his producers, Ross Copperman, Jon Randall Stewart and Arturo Buenahora Jr. “In the end, it feels like an album.”
The Arizona-raised Bentley says he’s long been inspired by the west, and Colorado in particular. “The southern lifestyle is what a lot of country music these days is about,” says the star, who believes that makes things harder for any non-southern songwriter who is determined to “write what you know.” He calls getting to pen songs from a more personal place for this album “a real joy.”
“I feel like this album is me just having the confidence to sing about where I’m from,” he says. And while he’s lived in Nashville for 25 years now — ever since he first moved there to attend college — Bentley says the city is someplace he’ll likely only stay until his children are out of high school. (For the record, that’s a long way off. His youngest, son Knox, is only 4 years old.)
Not surprisingly, Bentley says Colorado is where he may eventually end up one day, since mountains hold a compelling sway for him. “I love being around them. I love being up in them,” he says. “I love blue skies and places to ride bikes and just go for walks and just be away from the rat race of the city. It’s just where I feel the most recharged. It’s my happy place.”
Until he can someday make it permanent, he’s smartly figured out a way to at least spend more time there playing music. Bentley, whose entrepreneurial spirit has already driven him to launch a small chain of bar/restaurants, as well as his Desert Son merchandise line, will launch his inaugural Seven Peaks Festival in conjunction with Live Nation this summer. The three-day festival — which will also feature Miranda Lambert, Elle King, Clint Black and many more stars — will be held over Labor Day weekend in Buena Vista, Colorado.