Dierks Bentley thought he had his new album, Riser, all done and in the can last summer. But after his collaboration with Kacey Musgraves, "Bourbon in Kentucky," didn't take off, the 38-year-old country star rethought what he'd laid down. "It's a pretty dark song," he tells Rolling Stone. "I'm not afraid of trying things. It's a song I believe in, but it pushed the album release back about four months."
Ultimately, it was a very important four months. "The record I had originally made, my dad was alive at the time and my wife and I had two kids. Life was stabilized," Bentley says. "And then all of a sudden my dad passed away. Then my wife got pregnant and my son was coming, which was just a whole mix of emotions for me." Going back into the studio — and recording on the road — gave Bentley a chance to explore a new emotional palate outside the sterile studio environment, and make what he tells us is "my most real and personal album yet."
Stream Bentley's full album, Riser, due February 25th on Capitol Records Nashville, here and read on to get the full story behind his eighth LP.
What happened when you realized you had more time to work on the album?
I was on the road co-headlining a tour with Miranda Lambert at the time and it was the most fun and cathartic tour of my life. Then I went back in the studio and some of that fun brought more light and just overall fun into the album. Songs like "Back Porch and "Drunk on a Plane." We recorded vocals on buses and in houses all over. That's one thing that came out of it. I will never, ever record in a vocal booth again. When I started making records that's just what you did. I didn't start singing in the studio, I started off singing for drunk people and I'm just used to being around people when I sing. I don't have one of those voices that works in a perfectly sterile environment. I don't sing in multiple octaves, I just come more from the bluegrass school of singing with more emotion.
Did any one moment of recording stand out as special?
"Here on Earth" was written while I was thinking a lot about my dad and even more so about the Sandy Hook school shooting. Those things were really weighing on me. I was on the bus and we wrote the song in a couple hours. The vocal, it just came out in one full pass on the bus. We had the microphone sitting up on a window, which is probably not the most ideal microphone placement. It just got me thinking, "What am I singing in studios for?" I am way more comfortable in a natural environment around people and that just feels right. I'd never written a song like that before either, without the usual country structure of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, out, that song just came from my gut.
With everything going on in your life at the time, was this record's creation more cathartic for you than usual?
I try to make records about where I am in my life at the time. It just so happened that it was more real than where I'd ever been before. You know you write a song about dating a girl then she breaks your heart — that emotion is real and the heartache is real at the time, but looking back on it now that just seems kinda silly to me. I don't discount how that feels for someone that's going through that now, it certainly hurts. However, when you got three kids and your dad just died, well I was up to my elbows in life's dirt. I think about the country music I love, like Haggard and Jones and they always wrote from real-life experience. I feel like I'm in a place right now that there's a lot of meat to draw from, good and bad. It's all just about life and right now there's a lot more on my plate than there has been. I think it made for my most real and personal album yet.
Was that difficult for you during the recording process — to put these very intense emotions into your songs that people would eventually be hearing?
I feel like a couple years ago I just pulled the plug on the whole country game. I just walked away. I did a record "Up on the Ridge," which was basically just a bluegrass record that I made with all my pals. We were just operating like we didn't give a shit and just did what we wanted to. Now that was cathartic for me. I had just reached the end of the road creatively as I was just kind of sick of the game. Since that record, I've been very conscious about making the most honest records I can. These songs are personal, they're about me. I've found that the more personal songs I write, for some reason, people really relate to them. I write stuff that's personal to me I don't worry about how the country music machine perceives them.
There's a great balance of humor and deeper emotions on the record.
Well, a lot of the record there's stuff about summertime and just all around having a good time because I didn't want it all to be about the time my dad died. You know, I like drinking and I like flying. A good country music record has to have lots of other stuff. Some is down and dirty. I like my records to be listenable. It's hard to listen to the dark stuff all the time unless you're a sick and twisted country fan like me who stays up until 3 a.m. listening to the saddest George Jones songs. It's the joy of having a chance to breathe and smile on some of the other tracks.
A track like "Drunk on a Plane" is important to the record because it allows for there to be deeper songs like "Here on Earth." It's all just so fun, man. I'm one of the lucky few who get to do this for a living. My audience loves, and I've made a career out of, having songs with some humor to them. I think there's a good balance on this record.