By mixing bro-pleasing songs about carousing and boozing with more sober lamentations on fatherhood and death, "country's hottest guy" has -- finally -- grown into a bona fide star.

My career has been like that ramp," Dierks Bentley says, crossing a dirt parking lot as he leaves a Billboard photo shoot. He nods in the direction of a long loading ramp that slopes up from the mud onto the rear of a flatbed truck. The simile isn't entirely accurate -- his career arc has included a precipitous dip in the middle -- but the idea of a gradual climb holds true for Bentley, a tortoise among hares.

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