Makin' Tracks: Dierks Bentley Gives An Elevated Take On 'Living'

Jim Wright
Dierks Bentley

Among the more telling viral events of the current decade is a 2015 photo from Redondo Beach, Calif., in which a boater is so engrossed in his cell phone that he fails to see the spectacular humpback whales riding the waves just a few feet away.   

The moment started a cultural discussion -- for a day, anyway -- about how much technology distracts people from the miracles in their real lives.

Living in the moment is at the heart of Dierks Bentley's The Mountain, which is nominated for the Academy of Country Music's album of the year, and "Living" -- the project's third single, released to country radio via PlayMPE on Feb. 19 -- is part of its core mission. Appreciating every breath for the miracle that it is was the point when Bentley started working on the album by hauling at least a half-dozen songwriters out to the Colorado mountains for a short writing retreat in August 2017. "Living" -- with its images of flying birds, sunrises and hard-beating hearts -- captures the whole concept: The writers escaped the distractions of the urban treadmill to reconnect with life and see if they could find inspiration by experiencing each second as it passes.

"It really speaks a lot to the location and the initial vibe I put out there," says Bentley. He encouraged his co-writers to "just be inspired by where we are and by the energy that exists here and see what happens."

The catalyst for "Living" was surprisingly mundane. Bentley was on tour, where it's easy to treat the bus and the backstage area with a bunker mentality. Fiddler Dan Hochhalter and guitarist Ben Helson quietly ventured off campus to find a Walgreens one day, and when they returned, Bentley elevated their rather ordinary side trip into an adventure.

"It kind of became a joke," says Bentley, "like, 'Wow, you guys really did some living today. Did you get a toothbrush? Tell us all about Walgreens!'"

The sentiment that story inspired -- that there's a difference between just being alive and really living -- resonated with Bentley and the co-writers he teamed with on this particular session: Ashley Gorley ("What Makes You Country," "Dirt on My Boots"), Jon Nite ("Break Up in the End," "Tip It on Back") and Ross Copperman ("Beat of the Music," "I Lived It"). They spent part of every day hiking in the mountains and ended each one in resort-like leisure. The majesty of the trees, the freedom of the birds and the spectacle of colorful sunrises took on greater significance away from the drudgery of computer screens and morning commutes.

"It really seemed to hit home," says Gorley. "You [tend to] go through the motions. Like every night there could be a beautiful sunset, and if you don't look up, you miss it."

Thanks to the mountains' inspiration, they launched into "Living" with a flurry, despite sparse accommodations. "Dierks was in the process of moving into his house," recalls Copperman. "I put my monitor on two cardboard boxes and my laptop on a trash can in the middle and made the most funny-looking studio you've ever seen, and we probably wrote the song in like 48 minutes."

After threading Mother Nature into verse one, the women in their lives became appropriate muses for verse two.

"All of us, being married, we all tend to overlook how amazing they are," says Gorley. "We get used to being with these people we don't deserve, and we're all blessed to be in these scenarios we're in. It was a natural place to go. I don't even remember talking about it."

Songwriter Andrew Dorff ("Neon Light," "Yours If You Want It") had died the previous December, and his memory hung with Nite through much of the writing retreat. They had written together just a couple of days before Dorff died, and that incident had provided Nite a continuous reminder to value each day.

"I think of Andrew when I'm doing these crazy things, like on this trip," says Nite. "I'll just be like, 'Man, I wish you could see this,' kind of talking to him. That's been part of my change in life the last couple years."

They gave it a bridge before their 48-minute exercise concluded, noting the intensity of the Colorado mountain experience -- the "blue's a little bluer," the "high's a little higher" -- and relishing the opportunity to "feel that fire," a subtle nod to Bentley's 2008 single. "Beautiful World," a phrase in the chorus, also tips a hat to a duet he cut with Patty Griffin.

In the end, "Living" encourages mountaintop experiences, but recognizes that they're not the norm.

"Some days are not going to be great. Some days are going to be amazing," says Nite. "Just try to make more amazing days if they're in your control and enjoy them if you can."

Nite sang lead on the demo, which provided a great template when Bentley returned to Colorado with a band in November 2017 to cut the full album at the cabin-esque Studio in the Clouds near Telluride. "Living" was one of the first songs they knocked out.

"I felt like this song and this vibe is the cornerstone for this album, this idea of gratitude mixed with this idea of living," says Bentley. "It was a really important song to get the vibe right, because if we could lock in that sound on this song, we could apply that kind of attitude and sonic landscape to reference the other songs on the album."

Acoustic guitarist Jon Randall, who co-produced The Mountain with Copperman, helped find the right nuances to elevate the demo's sound with the band, which included drummer Matt Chamberlain, bass player Ian Fitchuk and electric guitarist Jedd Hughes.

"Jon speaks such a language with the musicians," says Copperman. "He'll be like, 'Hey, Jedd, remember how Keith Richards played with his right hand on this obscure track from 1978?' And Jedd will be like, 'Oh, yeah, I got it. I'll do that.' JR really added that next-level musicianship."

Bentley did most of the album's final vocals at Nashville's Southern Ground Studios, though he kicked out the leads for "Living" and "Burning Man," his collaboration with Brothers Osborne, on his birthday at Copperman's house.

"Woman, Amen" (No. 1, Country Airplay) and "Burning Man" (No. 2) went to radio first. "Living" is at No. 50 on the Country Airplay chart dated March 23 after three weeks.

Unlike the Redondo Beach boater who missed a great whale-watching moment, Bentley is totally present with "Living." "It's a really important song to me," he says. "It's one of the songs that I'll be singing in arenas, but if I went to The Bluebird Cafe, I'd sing it there, too. And I can't say that about every song in my catalog. We wanted to get to it as soon as we could, but I knew we had to kind of be patient. I'm so thankful to be here now."

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