“So the house lights will be up. I’ll take a look around, maybe raise up the ‘Cheers!’” Dierks Bentley says, taking a break from strumming his acoustic guitar to lift a can of peach-pear LaCroix to eye level and predict how a live audience might react after a year without concerts. “They may look at us like we’re idiots.”
Turning to his band, he adds, “Y’all ready?”
Bentley’s touring ensemble roars to life, filling this practice space at Soundcheck Nashville with the first live music I’ve heard in person in more than 13 months. Barely allowing so much as a breath between three consecutive songs, it’s like he’s making up for all the lost time of 2020. I’ve forgotten my earplugs and am shocked at how loud it is — seriously, was live music always this loud? — but I’m simultaneously exhilarated by the volume, every hair on my arms standing at attention, the frequencies penetrating my teeth.
On this day in early May, Bentley is walking Rolling Stone through plans for his High Times and Hangovers Tour, which kicks off for a very short five-day run on May 11th and takes the low-key country superstar to a handful of clubs he played early in his career. Returning to the road well before the bulk of his peers, the Arizona native is looking to take the concert-going temperature of an audience weary from a year of quarantining, isolation, and stillness.
“To not play a show in a year and a half and not know what the vibe is post-Covid…whatever world we’re in right now, pre-post-Covid?” he says, chuckling, “I think it’s just get back to the basics, which is make sure everyone has a great time… On the backside of this five-day tour, my DNA will be structurally rearranged from who I‘ve been the last year and a half.”
Promising to further alter Bentley’s DNA will be his headlining Beers on Me Tour, which gets underway August 13th and visits amphitheaters through October 22nd. Riley Green and Parker McCollum — with whom he just released a cover of Jerry Reed’s “East Bound & Down” — will be along for that journey, a trek considerably bigger in scale than the club tour. Bentley brings with him nearly two decades of hits, ranging from rowdy (“Free and Easy [Down the Road I Go]” and “5-1-5-0”) to poignant (“I Hold On” and “Home”), along with excursions into bluegrass and beyond.
During our conversation, a couple of neon wind-breakered, mullet-wigged figures wander in and start picking at the catering table. These are members of Hot Country Knights, a faux band of Nineties-country refugees whose 2020 album, The K Is Silent, Bentley produced. Of course, Bentley moonlights as Knights singer Douglas “Doug” Douglason and his commitment to the bit unfolding in front of me — the serious country music artist unable to mask his disgust for this bunch of keytar-and-Steinberger-wielding weirdos — is admirable. Hot Country Knights will be performing on Bentley’s club tour along with Cody Canada & the Departed.
“Just keep it down, don’t take all our food,” Bentley says to the interlopers. “Jesus, these guys are just a pain in the ass. We’re letting them soundcheck here in a little bit, but they’re obviously here a little soon.”
After our interview, Bentley disappears and, minutes later, Douglason emerges in a midriff-baring T-shirt, angular Oakleys resting on his nose. He proceeds to mansplain the idea behind the medley they’re about to play, which is akin to scanning the FM band: The Knights speed through snippets of songs like “She’s in Love With the Boy,” “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “I Swear,” and “The Dance,” while Douglason chews out his bandmates out for playing a “post-stache” Tracy Lawrence song. He’s heard Rolling Stone is in the building, but seems to be confused.
“Tell Mick Jagger if he’s looking for us, he knows where to find us. We’ll be at Donks!” Douglason says, a hyper-local reference to a Nashville-area sports bar.
Why did you decide to start out the summer playing clubs?
In some ways, if you can play a club, you can play anywhere. Clubs are hard. Amphitheaters are easy. Amphitheaters you have a huge stage, sky, stars. People are mingling. You have a big video wall, lights. It’s easy to hide up there. But a club is like, people are right in your face. I feel like if I can do this, I can do anything.
Rewinding a little bit, do you remember your last show of 2020?
The last show I played was in Omaha with Gabby Barrett and Hardy. I remember that because I had never met Gabby before. I saw her play and thought she was great. I flew to that show and offered [for] her and her husband to fly back with us, and they did. Got to know her a little bit.
What was the vibe like? Had the anxiety of Covid set in?
No, I wasn’t even thinking about Covid at that point. And I think that was March too, so that shows you how quickly Covid happened. Hardy put on a great show. Gabby was awesome. I was feeling the usual pre-tour, first-show-back excitement and anxiety. We were kind of taking a year off last year anyway so it wasn’t a regular tour, it was more one-off things.
You launch the Beers on Me Tour in August, which looks to exclusively play amphitheaters. How much of that is a function of the season when it’s nice and warm, and how much, if any, is it responding to the new environment we’re in?
I love doing arenas, but amphitheaters are the most fun in the summer. The amount of stress of trying to map out these tours with lots of other artists mapping out their tours [at the same time] and some places, like… is Washington open? I don’t know. We’ve got it on the tour schedule and we’ve routed dates around it. Is New York open? I don’t know. You call [Live Nation’s president of country touring Brian] O’Connell or [manager] Coran Capshaw and you think they might know more than you do, and they really don’t. Nobody seems to know. So we’ll pencil it in. But I think being outdoors helps.
The [unreleased] song “Beers on Me” talks about, “Hey, you’ve had a hard time, you’re having a rough week, come on down to the bar, beers are on me.” It’s not rocket science. It’s something you’d tell a buddy. My idea with the tour was if you bought a ticket, you get a beer. I don’t know if legally we’re going to be able to do that, but we’re working on it.
“You had a chance to get the vaccine. You don’t want to get it? Cool. But don’t sue anybody if you [get sick].”
Do you have any apprehensions or reservations about being back in big spaces with a lot of people?
I got Pfizer and I felt really good about it. The science says if you have it, you can’t get it, you can’t spread it. It’s the psychology of, this is the first time we’ve been together when nobody wore masks in the room, but when we got together two weeks ago everyone was still masked up. You can see it slowly unraveling and people getting more comfortable with it. I’m totally comfortable with it because I trust science. Even my kids, they have a much bigger risk getting hurt in a car crash than they do [from] Covid. But as far as the [club] tour goes, I’m not sure what the [vaccine] rollout’s been like in South Carolina and North Carolina, but it feels like if you wanted one, you could get one by now. If you haven’t gotten one, I respect your choice not to get one, but it’s like buying a ticket to go to a ski mountain: at this point, you’ve got to assume your own risks. There are inherent risks you assume coming to a concert. You had a chance to get the vaccine. You don’t want to get it? Cool. But don’t sue anybody if you [get sick]. Don’t sue me or the promoters, because that’s gonna kill music. So I have zero reservations about it all.
Do I think it’s over? No. Other strains could come in the back door and this fall could be completely off again. I worry about that more than I worry about Covid. I just worry about this not being over because enough people didn’t get vaccinated and some side strains were allowed to grow.
You’ve got several years of big hits to your credit. How do you begin to whittle down what will work and what won’t in your sets?
Yeah, I think “Gone,” if it goes Number One, will be my 20th [raps knuckles on the table in front of him]. But when I’m making the set list, it doesn’t feel that easy. I might have all these hits, but there’s only certain songs that I feel like fit in certain places in the show. Someone reading this is going to be like, “He has 20 hits and it’s hard?” For me it’s Tetris. Just finding the right flow, changing it up from the years before. I just think about those people, those hardcore fans down front that have seen 10 shows last year or the last time you were on tour and they can tell the same segues. That makes me self-conscious, if I do something I’ve already done before. I feel like I’m cheating them out of a new show.
You arguably had the performance of the night at the ACM Awards with your cover of U2’s “Pride” with the War and Treaty and Larkin Poe. How did that group come together?
They both played my Seven Peaks Festival in Buena Vista [Colorado] at different times. I just love what War and Treaty does, I love their music, and then I got to know Michael and Tanya [Trotter] and they’re great people — big hearts, big personalities, huge voices, so fun. And Larkin Poe, I became a fan when they played Seven Peaks. These two girls got up there with Flying V guitars, playing heavy blues licks. It blew me away how powerful their show was, but I’d heard they also played bluegrass, that’s their roots. So Jon Randall and I were trying to put this show together for the ACMs, and ACMs actually asked me to do it from the Station Inn, which was awesome. And [with] Brittany Haas [of Hawktail] on fiddle, it was a dream collaboration. Having that band behind you is like being strapped to the front of a freight train. All this power behind you, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.
What’s the status of the new album?
I’m listening to mixes right now and trying to figure out what the next single would be, but not really rushing it. I usually always make the album and put a single out. This time I wanted to just cut a bunch of songs and put songs out to radio and other places, worry about using the time to explore a little bit, working with my band. I put a song out right now [“Gone”] that David Garcia produced. I worked with Ross Copperman a little bit. I worked with Jon Randall and Brett Beavers, my producers from my first three albums. Doing some stuff with [songwriter] Luke Dick. I’m exploring producers and having fun. It seems like the year to do it, the Covid album, where you’re just trying stuff. It’s a great chance to explore a little bit. I never want to get stuck doing the same thing.
Dierks Bentley’s Beers on Me Tour Dates
August 13 – Salt Lake City, UT @ USANA Amphitheatre
August 14 – Boise, ID @ Ford Idaho Center Amphitheater
August 15 – Bend, OR @ Les Schwab Amphitheater
August 20 – Irvine, CA @ FivePoint Amphitheatre
August 21 – Mountain View, CA @ Shoreline Amphitheatre
August 22 – Stateline, NV @ Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena at Harvey’s***
August 26 – San Diego, CA @ North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre
August 27 – Phoenix, AZ @ Ak-Chin Pavilion
August 28 – Albuquerque, NM @ Isleta Amphitheater
September 16 – Virginia Beach, VA @ Veterans United Home Loans Amphitheater at Virginia Beach
September 17 – Raleigh, NC @ Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek
September 18 – Charlotte, NC @ PNC Music Pavilion
September 23 – Columbia, MD @ Merriweather Post Pavilion
September 24 – Wantagh, NY @ Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater
September 25 – Boston, MA @ Xfinity Center
October 7 – Detroit, MI @ DTE Energy Music Theatre*
October 8 – Cincinnati, OH @ Riverbend Music Center*
October 9 – Bristow, VA @ Jiffy Lube Live*
October 15 – Indianapolis, IN @ Ruoff Music Center**
October 16 – Pittsburgh, PA @ The Pavilion at Star Lake**
October 21 – St. Louis, MO @ Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre*
October 22 – Rogers, AR @ Walmart AMP*
*Riley Green and TBD
**Mitchel Tennpenny and TBD
***Riley Green Only