For Dierks Bentley, the return of his Seven Peaks Music Festival over Labor Day in Buena Vista, Colo., is especially sweet after having to take a year off during the pandemic and facing uncertainty about the status of the event he and Live Nation launched in 2018.
“We haven’t made any money off it yet. We’re not doing it for that — we’re doing it because it’s awesome,” Bentley tells Billboard via phone from Nashville. “We’re hoping one day it does work out that way, but we’re still growing it. So when it got cut last year, that really hurt and the question of whether Live Nation’s going to put their money behind something that’s not yet making them a lot of money was very worrisome for me.”
But then Live Nation’s president of country touring Brian O’Connell gave the go-ahead for the Sept. 3-5 event, and then, as Billboard is exclusively announcing, Keith Urban signed on to headline along with Bentley.
“When Keith signed on, that was such a huge thing; that was the ultimate green light,” Bentley says. “You’ve got to have that one big country headliner at a country festival. It allows you to do some other fun and really cool things like the ‘90s Night and have [bluegrass artist] Molly Tuttle and some other bands that aren’t mainstream country, like Old Crow Medicine Show. That made it feel pretty real.”
Starting June 7, Bentley began rolling out the names of the artists on the bill by performing short covers of their hits on Instagram and YouTube. Watch the premiere of Bentley’s cover of Urban’s “Somebody Like You”:
Since its inception, Seven Peaks has focused on country, bluegrass and ‘90s country. “This is a direct reflection of the top three kinds of music that I love,” Bentley says. “So to have a festival whose three components is experimenting with that, I can’t believe Live Nation and the fans allow us to get away with it.”
The Whiskey Row stage, named after Bentley’s five bars in the franchise, will feature up-and-coming artists Calista Clark, Jackson Dean, Payton Smith, Rapidgrass, Reyna Roberts, Caroline Jones, Willie Jones, Ray Fulcher and Bentley’s resident DJ, Aydamn.
“From the first note Pam Tillis hits, I’ll be sitting side of the stage with my band and crew,” he says. “A lot of guys in my crew save up their beards all year long so they can shave them down to a sick mustache for ‘90s night, and everybody’s got their denim shorts on and their mullet wigs. It looks like a time machine backstage. Having a theme is pretty fun. I think we’re the only festival that does that and I know we’re the only one that has Hot Country Knights headlining. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not,” he laughs.
The lineup’s diversity — including four women on the main stage and highly touted Black country artists Reyna Roberts and Willie Jones — is a direct result of Bentley’s musical preferences. “The last five years some of the most compelling and most risk-taking music is being made by female artists,” he says. “One reason I love ‘90s country is the songwriting — I felt like they were painting with many more colors back in the ‘90s than we are in some ways today, and I feel like the women are picking that back up. As far as the Black artists go, I’m all down for the push to open things up and bring some people in.”
When not on stage as part of Hot Country Knights — his own headlining slot on Sept. 5 — and popping up during other performers’ sets, Bentley will be found mingling with festivalgoers. Bentley, who will arrive on site the Monday before, rises every morning of the festival after sleeping in a tent next to his bus, takes a cold plunge in the creek and then meets with O’Connell. “We start talking about last night or the night ahead and he’ll say, ’Jump in the golf cart, there are some fans hanging out at this intersection and we should go surprise them,’” Bentley says. “We go out and mess with the fans and think about what we can do to make this the most talked about festival.”
While all COVID-19 restrictions are likely to be lifted by early September, Bentley says he didn’t contemplate requiring any proof of vaccination by attendees. “I think it should be completely wide open, and hopefully it will be by then,” he says. “We want to make sure we’re doing everything safe [according] to the county and state, and definitely play by all the rules, but if you trust the science, there’s just not that much outdoor spread.”
Vaccinations for his band and crew, however, are mandatory. “I did pay everybody during the pandemic, full salary. If you want to work for us, you’ve got to be vaccinated. That’s just the way it is,” Bentley says, adding he lost one employee who opted to leave instead of get vaccinated. “I hate it for them and I hate it for us, but we want to get back out there as safely as possible. We’re mingling with people backstage and with stagehands, and none of us want to be responsible for passing something along to somebody else.”
Like many people, surviving the pandemic has left Bentley with a new appreciation for, well, everything. “What I take this time over the previous years’ festivals is the heightened sense of that you can’t take anything for granted — your time with your family, with your friends, your time as a country singer hosting your own festival. This is beyond dreams — just being there, being totally present, having the feeling of joy and wonder and spreading that throughout the festival grounds.”
Three-day passes for the music and camping experience go on sale June 18.