When Dierks Bentley first came to check out Jed Selby's ranch in Buena Vista, Colorado, last winter as a potential host for his Seven Peaks Festival, Selby knew straight away he was the real deal.
"It's the middle of winter and we walk out on the property and he asks me where a good place to go swimming is," Selby says. "There's snow on the bank of the creek. I thought he was kidding. I said, 'There's a deep spot right over here.' He takes off his clothes and jumps in the river. I guess you could say he's a real mountain man."
Likewise, it didn't take long for Bentley to see that the bucolic property was an ideal home for what he and Brian O'Connell, Live Nation's President of Country Touring, hope to be country music's next destination festival when the inaugural Seven Peaks Festival – with Bentley, Miranda Lambert, Brothers Osborne, Elle King, Del McCoury and more – kicks off on Labor Day weekend.
But first, Bentley will have to convince thousands of fans to take a trip to the backcountry along with him. In the frontier state of Colorado, that's sometimes easier said than done.
Gale-force winds nixed our planned campfire powwow in Buena Vista in favor of an impromptu indoor campsite hangout in Denver's Fillmore Auditorium. Even in the city, the elements found their way inside. The wind, which tossed a chunk of rooftop into the street just a mile away, killed the power.
Bentley, a private pilot, had made the flight into Colorado a few times to check out Buena Vista. But not in these conditions.
"It's flying debris crazy out there," Bentley says, taking a seat in a dark hall outside of the greenroom. "That landing was…I've never landed in winds gusting up to 48 knots. That was pretty intense."
Still, he said, the journey there was worth the destination. That's what he hopes his fans will soon find out.
"There's one word I use, and it's from a song on my new album. It's just called 'Living.' There's some days you just get by, some days you're just alive, and there's some days you're living. When you're out here, I feel like you're really living."
Bentley, who hails from Arizona, has been coming to the state before his country music career was anything but a dream. As a kid, he and his family would head to the small Colorado town of Durango to retreat for the holidays. After a performance at last year's Telluride Bluegrass Festival, he felt the mountains pull him again – this time to his guitar. His new album, aptly called The Mountain, came to life in Telluride last year. Bentley took a half-dozen songwriters with him to write and record there in an attempt to capture a glimmer of the "intangible feeling" he found there.
"It's having a cup of coffee and watching the sun come up over those peaks. It's the sound of Brian Sutton's acoustic guitar bouncing off [Telluride's] box canyon. It's the energy in there. I can't describe it."
A walk around the site of Seven Peaks – named for the Collegiate Peak mountain range that flanks the area – gives you a clear idea of what Bentley is on about. From its expansive camping field to the shady grove of cottonwood trees that leads into the main festival ground, the 277-acre ranch is readymade for a music festival. (Selby's ranch hosted its inaugural fest in 2016, a three-day EDM and rock festival called Vertex.)
Given the already beautiful canvas, nature took care of most of the work for them. While they're trying not to overthink it – "Look, I've got mountains," O'Connell says, "I don't want to screw up the rest" – Live Nation has a few tricks up its sleeve for the site. O'Connell envisions a special section of creekside camping and turning a beachy, sand-strewn pond at the site into a hangout spot. A tented club-style stage will complement the main stage, and a Whiskey Row dance area will keep late-night partiers moving until their RVs call to them.
There is one thing Bentley and O'Connell say fans won't find at Seven Peaks: The field of seats you often see in front of the stage at country music festivals.
"I hate those fucking chairs," Bentley say. "You walk out to see a new artist, and there's like a mile of white chairs. And then all of your fans are behind this fence. It's bullshit. If you want to be the first one up front, be the first one up front."
That attitude is, in part, what distinguishes Seven Peaks from its counterparts. O'Connell, who's the mind behind Watershed Music Festival in George, Washington, and Chicago's Windy City Lake Shake, describes Bentley as an equal creative partner in Seven Peaks. Bentley reached out to its artists personally and plans on joining them on stage intermittently throughout the weekend. He wants to drop in on fans' campsites for a game of beer pong when the mood strikes him.
This community-first, play-every-set take on a country festival was inspired by DelFest, a roots festival organized by bluegrass sage Del McCoury in the Appalachian town of Cumberland, Maryland. McCoury and his sons are known for playing every day of the festival, which Bentley plans to do, and cavorting with the crowd between sets.
"He's allowed the fans to make it what they want to be," Bentley says. "He totally embraces it. He gets on a golf cart, which is like the Popemobile, and lines up fans for a half hour and just hi-fives them."
(McCoury, 79, offers Bentley a piece of advice if he wants to keep up: "Tell him to just make sure he gets at least 16 hours of sleep a night, which I'm sure he don't do.")
Ultimately, O'Connell and Bentley know that Seven Peaks will thrive or die on whether they're able to deliver that community experience. The festival is permitted for 30,000 people. But they aren't concerned with counting heads just yet.
"It's not this corporate thing that is trying to persuade you to do something," O'Connell says, perched over the dim light of an electric candle at the Fillmore. "This is a committed group of individuals sitting in the dark on a Tuesday when [Dierks] is in the middle of album launch, flying up here in 60 mile-per-hour winds. He believes enough in this project to put his own sweat equity into it."
Passes for Seven Peaks, set for August 31st through September 2nd, are on sale now.