Dierks Bentley has a longstanding interest in bluegrass, and has included a bluegrass track on each of his four major label albums to date. Last year it was announced that he planned to record two albums this year – a bluegrass side project and a mainstream album. As he started the process he and producer Jon Randall (the songwriter and one-time major label artist now billed by his full name Jon Randall Stewart) found the two projects came together, and the end result, due next month, was a single record which melded country, bluegrass and other influences. The title track has been released as the lead single and gives us our first glimpse into what will be on offer.
I’ve always liked Dierks’ voice and he sounds committed here. The tune doesn’t have much range, but the strong driving rhythm grabs hold of the listener from the start and never let’s go. I really like the instrumentation (slightly beefed up bluegrass) on this, but I really didn’t care for the minor keyed chorus and particularly the backing vocals (allegedly courtesy of Alison Krauss but she is almost unrecognizable, stripped of all her sweetness). I was a little disappointed that the production of a bluegrass-inspired project did not sound quite as acoustic and natural as I had hoped it would, with some incongruous and artificial echoey effects in the chorus, at the very start of the song and in the last verse. They do not destroy the song for me, but they did seem unnecessary and a counter to the joys of the musicianship. This would probably work better live, where studio intrusion would be discarded.
Written by Dierks with Angelo Petraglia, the lyric is about the joys of the countryside, but it differs from the standard country living songs. For a start it is a refreshing change to have a song about the countryside actually sounding country (or bluegrass), and that alone would make this stand out. However it isn’t really a ‘country pride’ song at all – the narrator clearly lives in the city and is only heading out to the hills for the night:
Let’s blow out these city lights
Let’s just leave it all behind
Get up where the air is still
You can hear the whippoorwill
Start a fire, pass the shine
Won’t be home till mornin’ time
I might quibble about the categorization of air on the ridge being still; every hilltop I’ve ever been on has been very windy with the stiller air on more protected lower ground. After the first verse’s attractive picture of sharing music and drink around a bonfire, the main part of the song is an appeal for the protagonist’s girl to join him, although, to be picky again, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for privacy. This aspect of the song is underlined in the video with its good-humored depiction of smiling pickers playing in a field overnight to a crowd of young people dancing strikes an inclusive note, with several romantic couples forming. This has great charm, does perhaps mean the focus of the original song changes to the more inclusive approach of the first verse.
Dierks’ dog Jake, who gets a cameo in the video, is well-known to his fans as he has appeared in several of his master’s previous videos and been photographed in album liner notes, making the front cover of his self-titled debut. One of my favorite things about this song was the name-check for Jake, which sounds as though it may be based on actual experience:
Hear old Jake start to howl
When he hears that ol’ hoot owl
I loved his first two albums, but felt he had lost his way a little artistically in more recent years, although he is still massively successful on country radio. Based on the evidence of this single, he has found an adventurous new path by incorporating bluegrass into his sound and making an album based on artistic concerns rather than commercial ones and I am extremely interested to hear the new album. This is a potentially risky move; Dierks has been very popular with radio programmers in recent years, but as a group they have been reluctant to embrace anything far from mainstream pop-country. If country radio makes this the hit it deserves to be, it will bring a welcome freshness to the airwaves.
Buy ‘Up On The Ridge’ from amazon mp3.