“I really do feel like it’s my best,” Dierks Bentley says of his upcoming 10th studio album, Gravel & Gold, which arrives Friday, Feb. 24 via UMG Nashville.
It’s the kind of platitude that artists often say with every new project they set out to promote. However, Bentley says it with the kind of steady confidence borne of the painstaking process of scrapping two previous album-making attempts in order to craft the new album, picking up portions of those previous projects and adding new songs and recordings.
“I feel like this is my best representation of the kind of country music I’m trying to do, the kind I’ve been trying to work on since I moved to town,” Bentley says.
The third attempt worked, resulting in an adept synthesis of the sleek, commercial country sounds that have permeated previous projects such as 2016’s Black, his ‘90s country influences, and the organic, bluegrass leanings that swathed previous projects including 2010’s Up on the Ridge (helmed by Jon Randall) and 2018’s The Mountain (Randall and Ross Copperman).
“All the pieces were there for the 10th project, and those earlier sessions were good, it just ultimately wasn’t right,” Bentley says. “I hadn’t been in the studio much, and I hadn’t been writing a lot of songs; I had taken a lot of time off during the pandemic. With every album, you gotta leave out some songs. It’s gonna hurt when you are going in there to make the final sequence — and it should be painful; it means you are cutting out good stuff to get to the best songs you can.”
Gravel & Gold marks Bentley’s first time as an album co-producer, working on tracks with Randall, Copperman and F. Reid Shippen.
The album is the result of Bentley falling back in love — with Nashville, with music — after a year spent living in Telluride, Colorado. Arizona native Bentley had been trying to find a respite from Nashville for 15 years, longing to spend more time out West, though his touring and recording schedule didn’t allow for it. In 2020, when tours shut down during the height of the COVID-19, pandemic, he relocated to Colorado for a year with his wife Cassidy and their three children, Evie, Jordan and Knox.
“I was really happy being out there, but when I came back to Nashville, I realized how much I love Nashville and how great the town has been to me — the history I have here, the friends I have here. It’s realizing that gravel can be gold; it’s just about your perspective on it and the way you look at it. That’s the underlying theme I had going into the making of the album, and certainly on that third go-around of making it. It felt like I settled back into Nashville.”
While other artists have used the pandemic become ever-more prolific in their songwriting, and issue multi-part albums, Bentley opted for a tightly-constructed project across a comparatively lean 14 tracks.
“I love that a lot of guys are putting out double and triple albums, but for me personally, I can’t consume much more than like 11 or 12 songs. But it’s a different world. I also see kids’ attention spans are so little these days — so it’s hard to get through a whole album, let alone a double or triple album.”
Taken together, the songs are a natural evolution for an artist who discovered his love of bluegrass while taking in countless shows at Nashville’s longtime bluegrass hotbed Station Inn and playing some of his earliest shows at Exit/In. He released his debut album in 2003 and earned a Country Airplay-topping hit with the sleek “What Was I Thinkin’.” In the 20 years that have elapsed, he’s become a consistent hitmaker (with 18 No. 1 Country Airplay hits), a 14-time Grammy nominee and an artist unafraid to take risks to follow his creative inclinations.
“Something Real” is straightforward about Bentley’s intentions for substantive music.
“I had ‘Gone’ and ‘Beers on Me’ on the radio, and those are fun songs that needed to be there at the time, coming through this whole pandemic, songs that feel good,” Bentley says. “But I really wanted to make an album that has great country songwriting that packs a whole lot of emotion, feeling and story into three minutes.”
The humor fans know from songs like “Drunk on a Plane” returns in the clever “Beer at My Funeral.” Meanwhile, a similar tone to Bentley’s 2013 hit “I Hold On” — which displayed a fierce loyalty to “dancing with the one that brought ya,” whether it be worn, lived-in trucks or guitars — permeates “Cowboy Boots,” featuring recent Grammy winner Ashley McBryde,
“Everyone loves Ashley McBryde,” Bentley says. “She’s a great singer, songwriter, a great personality. I was lucky enough to get to tour with her last year and just watch her command a stage every night. She has this great mix of rock, country and attitude. The first time I saw her perform, I was blown away by her whole deal.”
Bentley has utilized the music videos accompanying the songs on this album to spotlight music venues around Nashville, including Exit/In (“Same Ol’ Me”) and Robert’s Western World (“Cowboy Boots”).
“This album is all about returning to Nashville, with a new appreciation for all that we have here, that I’ve kind of taken for granted — places like Exit/In, Station Inn and Robert’s. Robert’s is one of my favorite bars — I used to go down there and watch BR-549, Brazilbilly, Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock. It was nostalgic for me to go back to these venues where I cut my teeth.”
Reprising his previous bluegrass-centric work, Bentley pays homage to weed and bluegrass on the album’s closing track, “High Note,” while welcoming red-hot bluegrass picker Billy Strings, as well as a host of musicians including Jerry Douglas (dobro), Sam Bush (mandolin), Charlie Worsham (guitar) and Bryan Sutton (guitar/banjo). Since making his debut in 2017, Strings has risen from clubs to selling out a string of arenas on his current tour — a rarity for a bluegrass artist.
“I’m just lucky that I got the chance to meet [Billy] as he was coming up five or six years ago,” Bentley says. “His rise is unbelievable. Charlie Worsham wrote [“High Note”] and I wanted to have some bluegrass on this project. We cut it with drums and gave it a bit of a country-rock feel. It’s just a great collection of people coming together, playing on a fun song. I would love for that song to be a single on country radio, but I don’t know if it would work. It’s a great way to end the project and go out on a high note.”
The album’s blend of well-crafted songwriting across an array of styles from ‘90s honky-tonk, pop-country, and bluegrass leanings is uniquely positioned, given country music’s current sonic landscape. The highly produced works of Morgan Wallen top the country charts alongside the decidedly less-polished acoustic-rock works of Zach Bryan and the ‘90s country influence of Luke Combs, while Strings’ progressive bluegrass and Tyler Childers’ raw roots music draw ever-surging audiences, and Elle King powers her country-rock with banjo.
Though perhaps not reaching the threshold of a full-fledged bluegrass/roots music resurgence on the scale of 2001-2002 — spearheaded by the juggernaut soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou?, which dominated the charts alongside albums from Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes and Lonestar, while artists like Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton released acoustic albums and Nickel Creek won Grammys for their breakthrough album — hints of rootsier leanings are apparent. The landscape could be more akin to early 1980s, when two former members of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys (Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley) went on have chart-topping country music careers.
In 2015, Bentley and his touring band delved deeper into his ‘90s country influences, often serving as tour openers for themselves via the parody band Hot Country Knights, which released an album, The K Is Silent, in 2020. In recent months they have continued their bluegrass connection by launching bluegrass group Long Jon, with a slate of regular performances on the first Tuesday of each month at Station Inn.
“I think for me and the guys, it’s about chasing that first-time feeling again, musically,” Bentley explains. “With Hot Country Knights, it was scary, that first time walking on stage like that. I thought my whole career was gonna come to a crashing halt, but it ended up obviously being super fun. With Long Jon, I have a huge respect for the Station Inn stage. To me, the Station Inn is as important to Nashville as the Ryman. And I’m a little biased, but my band’s incredible and I’m so proud of them to be able to jump between all these different gigs. It keeps us all on our toes.”