by Mark McDermott
He was a scruffy, affable 19-year-old kid who showed up in the audience so religiously every Tuesday night at Nashville’s Station Inn that everyone from the front door lady to the musicians on stage grew to know and like Dierks Bentley. What they didn’t know is he was dead-set on one day getting up on that stage, which is the equivalent of a church among bluegrass devotees. And he didn’t intend to stop there.
Bentley had come from Scottsdale, Arizona. Two years earlier he’d had a straight-up epiphany. He’d grown up a rock ‘n roll kid, with spiked hair and a poster of Billy Idol affixed to his bedroom wall, and started playing electric guitar at 13. He put up with his dad’s country music when it was playing but only because he had no choice in the matter.
Then he heard Hank Williams Jr. The song was “Man to Man,” Junior’s plea to his dead father, the legendary “hillbilly Shakespeare” of country music who’d died tragically at 27. The song is only about three minutes long but by its end, Bentley knew with utter certainty what the trajectory of his life would henceforth be.
“I knew right away what I wanted to do,” Bentley later said at an appearance at the Country Music Hall of Fame. “It was one of those moments in my life, I don’t know how to describe it – like a coin going into a slot machine, it just hits all the right clicks. I just heard the song and I was like, ‘I want to move to Nashville and be a country singer.’”
His initial forays were a little disheartening. He’d thought Music City U.S.A., as Nashville calls itself, would be…well, about music. Instead, he was seeing a lot of people dressing like Garth Brooks, with tight Wrangler jeans, big belt buckles, and cowboy hats, going for a sellable image more than the music itself.
“I was trying to find that seed of truth, that authenticity, that thing, ‘country music,’ that I had in my head,” he recalled in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary. “And I got here and it was definitely different than I expected it to be. It’s big business, a lot of money.”
And then he found the Station Inn. The little single-room cinder block building in a Nashville neighborhood known as “The Gulch” is considered by many to be the best bluegrass venue on the planet. Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Rickey Skaggs, Sam Bush, and Allison Krause have graced its stage. The night Bentley first walked into the room he discovered another lifeline.
“I found what I was looking for,” Bentley said. “Just the sound of a five-piece bluegrass band blew my mind. And they’re not trying to take meetings all the time and meet producers, and get their foot in the door. It’s funny, I moved to Nashville looking for country music, but I found bluegrass.”
Outside of those nights at the Station Inn, he was doing everything he could to deeply learn the whole of country music. He even wrangled an internship with The Nashville Network that allowed him to go to the Grand Ole Opry every Friday night for research. There, he got to see the old legends, like Grandpa Jones and Porter Wagner, and go backstage. He was so avid in his research that he kind of got kicked out. TNN received an email from the powers-that-be at the Grand Ole Opry: “We like this guy, seems like a good kid, but he can’t come to the Opry every single Friday….Maybe once a month, but he can’t have a free pass to be there whenever he wants.’”
“So we kind of had to shut that down,” Bentley recalled, with a sheepish smile, at his Hall of Fame appearance.
All the while, he was honing his musical skills. Not only was Bentley playing covers for pocket change at the beer joints on Nashville’s thoroughfare, Broadway Avenue, but he was deeply studying the craft of what made those songs hits. He had a method: he’d write down the song and its chord changes in his notebooks, digging deep into the mechanics of what made the song tick.
“Every little word mattered to me,” he later told American Songwriter. “I have books and books at my house, notepads, front and back. The front was country; the back would be bluegrass, and I’d just fill both sides of these yellow legal pads. I was trying to learn the craft of writing songs.”
What he took away from this experience is the primacy of songs.
“Songs are everything,” he said. “If you ain’t got the song, you ain’t got anything.”
Bentley eventually worked up the courage – and acquired the requisite skills – to move from the audience at the Station Inn up onto the stage. It took everyone in the room by surprise. As the much-beloved former music writer for The Tennessean, Peter Cooper, remarked, “People at the club were telling me, ‘It was like he was in the audience drinking beer with his friends, and then he was on stage drinking beer with his friends.’”
“That’s the hardest stage,” Bentley said. “It's still the hardest stage to get up on. It’s only about six inches tall but man….It’s nerve-wracking to be on that stage because Bill Monroe has stood there, all the greats have played there.”
Bentley made his mark at the Station Inn so indelibly that the much-beloved Ann Soyars, the big-hearted front door woman at the club for decades who became a legendary figure in her own right among Nashville musicians, predicted that he’d one day win coveted Country Music Award honors. She made two T-shirts that read “#1 Fan of Dierks Bentley, Future CMA Winner,” wearing one herself and gifting the other to Bentley’s mother.
Bentley paid his dues on the bar scene for the better part of a decade. He finally got a record deal with Capitol Nashville. His self-titled debut album was released in 2003 and, powered by the number one hit “What Was I Thinkin’,” it went platinum. He followed it up in 2005 with Modern Day Drifter, which again went platinum, with two number ones, “Come a Little Closer” and “Settle for a Slowdown.” That same year, he became the youngest performer ever inducted into the institution from which he’d once been kicked out, the Grand Ole Opry.
Dierks Bentley had arrived. What first stood out about his music, then as now, was foremost that voice, a lived-in baritone in keeping with a long line of great male country singers, including the likes of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Don Williams, George Strait, Randy Travis, and a personal hero of Bentley’s (along with Hank Jr.), Dwight Yoachim. Bentley sings like a real country man and writes in the way that people in rural places actually talk, nothing too fancy but plenty of self-depracating humor laced with the no-nonsense poetry of everyday American life. He has written such songs as “I’ll Be the Moon” (a duet with Maren Morris), one of the best cheating songs of the last half century, and “Drunk on a Plane,” which for all its laughs touches on a woozy, heartsick experience more than a few of us have known. But perhaps Bentley’s greatest gift is his ability to write bring-us-together anthems, such as his most recent big hit, “Beer’s On Me”: “Come on down, swing on by/Bring whatever's been on your mind/Locals on tap and bottles on ice/Livin' on feel-good standard time/My card's on the bar, you got nowhere to be/If you don't come through, buddy, that's on you/'Cause the beer's on me…”
Bentley, even as he became a stadium star, has managed to always keep it real. He always kept what he learned at the Station Inn as part of his music. His band usually features a dobro and a mandolin, and in 2010 he actually did a bluegrass record, Up on the Ridge, a totally non-commercial move right in the midst of his ascent to megastar status. In so doing, he proved his first big fan, Ann Soyars, right — the record earned a CMA nomination for Album of the Year. In 2014, he was nominated for five CMAs, and invited Soyars to accompany him to the awards show. Unfortunately, she fell too sick from what would prove a fatal bout with cancer to attend, so Bentley showed up frequently at her hospital bed, and sang to her. As Peter Cooper reported, Bentley took the critically ill Soyars for a ride in his black 1967 Camaro, and climbed into her hospital bed to hug her near the end.
“I know she's watching,” Bentley said at the Hall of Fame. “But I do wish she was here to see it all, because it'd put a big smile on her face.”
Dierks Bentley plays BeachLife Ranch September 17.