Watch your back, Clive Davis. (And your "Sideways," too.) The new pre-Grammy party host with the most may be country star Dierks Bentley, who put on his own star-studded show Saturday night, about a mile away but a rootsy world removed from Clive's glamorous gala.
Bentley took over the Troubadour with an on-stage guest list that included fellow country luminaries Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum, Blake Shelton, Zac Brown, David Nail, Del McCoury, Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander, and Sam Bush. Also joining in the festivities were actor Garrett Hedlund (Country Strong, Tron Legacy) and a couple of key representatives from the rock world: Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, and Paramore's lovely raven-tressed frontwoman. Who needs Whitney when you've got Hayley?
Hayley Williams sang the Paramore ballad "You're My Exception," accompanied by Bentley's acoustic guitar. And in performing just one song, she was an exception to the evening's general rule, which, as stated by Bentley, was "one for the fans, one for the legends"—meaning one original hit, and one classic country cover. But Williams could be forgiven for keeping it brief, for the (yes) exceptional way she knocked it out of the park.
The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach went the opposite route, singing none of his own material, but rather joining legend Del McCoury and his band for a surprisingly lengthy mini-set of classic bluegrass. Strange bedfellows? "It doesn't mix more than this," as Bentley declared. But this was no whim for Auerbach, whose band is better recognized for its blues influences. He's been in the studio with T Bone Burnett, working on music for a Bill Monroe biopic that Burnett hopes to get produced.
Lambert and Williams were both second-timers, having been guests the first time Bentley threw a pre-Grammys party a few years ago, when it was held at Hollywood's now-defunct Knitting Factory club. The Troubadour was a better fit for what we'll call Bentley-Fest. For one thing, the West Hollywood nightspot has historic roots in the alchemy of country-rock, having launched the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt in the early '70s. And the casual vibe wasn't even affected by the balcony being reserved for VIPs. Half the Nashville music establishment seemed to have squeezed in upstairs, while the floor was excitedly overpopulated with a few hundred rank-and-file fans who'd nabbed the hottest ticket country music may see all year.
Lambert risked the wrath of the police as well as the already-fire West Hollywood fire marshall by singing "Gunpowder and Lead." As happened quite a few times during the two-hours-40-minutes show, the artist didn't know which of her hits she'd be performing; Bentley just had his crackerjack band launch in on the spur of the moment.
When she was followed onto the stage by her fiancee, Blake Shelton, Bentley had the band fire up his current hit, "Who Are You When I'm Not Looking"—which took on a slightly homoerotic tinge as Shelton addressed some of the romantically curious lines to the host, who would sometimes nod affirmatively, as when Shelton sang the line about a woman painting her nails to cover up the bite marks. (We suspect some suggestible ticket-holders probably dived right into fan fiction in earnest upon getting home.)
Lady A's Charles Kelley had some fun at at his host's expense, readjusting the microphone and blurting, "Damn, you're short as hell, Dierks!" "I'm really not that short—I'm like six feet tall" Dierks later protested, though he's no match for Kelley's basketball-sized 6'6" frame. (The three Lady A-sters sang "Need You Now," naturally—with Kelley and Hillary Scott singing to each other, therefore avoiding any of that Blake/Dierks awkwardness.)
Zac Brown made two appearances during the evening, singing Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" the first time around, then reappearing a couple of hours later as a surprise addition to "Bad Angel," replacing the absent Jamey Johnson on the song that has Bentley, Lambert, and Johnson up for a best country collaboration Grammy.
Garrett Hedlund was among the early guests, with Bentley noting that he'd run into him at the Station Inn studio when Hedley was presumably working on the Country Strong soundtrack, often with a 12-pack of beer in hand, even in the morning. "I thought, 'Who is this guy who's keeping it real, old-school country-style?'" Hedlund chose to duet with Bentley on Kris Kristofferson's "The Pilgrim"—singing it in a baritone that curiously didn't really match his movie voice, but sounding more like he was trying to do Cash doing Kristofferson.
There was a fair amount of competitive spirit about who would tower over whom the following night at the telecast. But few were left wondering about the largess, if not the largeness, of the host, whom Sam Bush described at evening's end as "the most generous man in country music." On-stage for all but one number of a two-and-a-half-hour set, Bentley proved a natural at this kind of thing—the genial counterpart to the more sardonic presence that Shelton brings to a hosting role. No matter what happens at the Grammys, it's clear from watching Shelton share a stage with his contemporaries that this much is true: One of the good guys won.