Dierks Bentley at the Belcourt [Photo: Chris Willman]Dierks Bentley should know better than to say the word "naked" at a fan club party. But he let the word slip at his annual Last Call Ball, which was held on the closing day of the CMA Festival, as he and his band played an acoustic set for just over 300 of his most hardcore and most fortunate fans.
"Sounds good in here, man," Bentley told the crowd at the Belcourt, a movie arthouse built in 1925 that once, very briefly (in the mid-1930s), served as the home of the Grand Ole Opry. "It’s good to take these songs you guys have only heard all electrified up – were you guys there last night at LP Field? — and give ‘em a little bit of an acoustic feel... I'm nervous for some reason, man. I wasn’t nervous last night in front of the stadium, but I get nervous in front of you guys. You guys know me too well. I feel naked up here." Titters and light yowls ensued. Come a little closer and all that...
In actuality, the biggest attraction of the 70-minute afternoon concert wasn't hearing acoustic versions of songs that fans have only heard electrified up, but tunes that haven't been heard before at all (although he's been doing a couple of them at his most recent dates). Bentley sang four selections from Riser, an album that isn't due until October.
One of them, the anthemic "I Hold On," couldn't possibly be more predestined to be a hit:
"It really started with an idea of who I am and how I came to be this way," Bentley said. "Thinking about driving out here with my dad when I was 19 years old, in the truck that’s still out there in the (Belcourt) parking lot. And all the memories of that, and then 'I’ve been offered a free truck so many times. Why do I still have this thing?' I love the fact that it has 200,000 miles and all these stories and all this history to it... The same thing with this guitar. I’ve been offered a lot of free guitars and I’ve played other ones over the years, but I like this one... When y’all first started to come see us play, it didn’t have any markings on it at all... There was one night I was playing a solo and smashed my hand in the back of it." But besides the blemishes, the guitar also has autographs from Georges Jones and Strait as well as notorious guitar-keeper Willie Nelson, and even a separate section of his bluegrass heroes' John Hancocks. "It’s part of who I am so I would never trade it in. I'm always trying to keep this thing propped up and still working. It’s constantly splitting and cracking. But that, my boots, the tour bus… I hold onto stuff. I wrote this with a buddy of mine named Brett James… I think it’s probably the most personal song about who I am."
That's one of a few songs on Riser affected by the death of his father, Leon, just over a year ago.
"There’s definitely some personal stuff on the record," Bentley said. "The reason I wasn’t here last year for the Last Call Ball is my dad passed away right before that, June 1… I had to stay home for that and I hated missing it. That was the last thing in the world he would have wanted... He just was always about 'Do your thing and don’t worry about me and I’ll be fine.' But I’m just so thankful I had a chance to go out there and be with him for that last week. When I walked into the hospice, he still knew who I was and we were able to kind of have a conversation. Then that last week he just totally kind of fell off and the last couple days he wasn’t conscious that much at all. But was there with him at the very end, which is the most special honor, to be with your parent as they go... But I’m really glad to be back this year and I’ve been looking forward to this for two years now."
But the upcoming album won't be without lighter, relatively uninfluenced-by-fatherhood fare.
"You can’t be afraid to be goofy and make fun of yourself," he assured fans. "We spend a lot of time flying… I’ve already got my A-list from Southwest this year. I’m pretty pumped. There have been times this band has actually drunk a Southwest flight out of beer… I don’t know if this will be a single or not, but I can already see the video. The big tall guy from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I want him to be the lead actor. So if anybody knows him or wants to get in touch with him…" The theoretical video would have Jason Segel "trying to hit up on somebody, and then he’s crying on a grandma’s shoulder, and he’s sneaking into the bathroom with somebody, and he’s passed out in the overhead bin and crowd surfing with the (passengers). This will make a lot more sense once you hear the song. This is called 'Drunk on a Plane.'"
Unlike the protagonist of that song, or Jason Segel's Sarah Marshall alter ego, Bentley doesn't have to drink to forget any significant other these days. He's got a third child on the way, and used the fan-club gathering as an occasion to reveal the gender of the forthcoming Bentley.
"I haven’t told anybody at all. I checked with my wife first to make sure it was cool, and she was like 'Yeah, you can tell them, just don’t tell anybody else.' So keep it quiet, right?" But before unveiling the sex of the zygote, he ran through a list of some of the names fans had suggested. For a girl, proposals had ranged from River Grace to the quite probably facetious Dierks Ann. For boys, the suggestions included Ridge, Dude, Deacon Cash, Jack Daniels, and Cody Leon (paying twin homage to Dierks' late dad and his musician friend Cody Canada). Then came the still-nameless revelation: "We’re having a boy. Just don’t tell anybody, all right?... I’m pretty freaked out. A friend of mine told me having three kids was like having a thousand. I said, I thought two kids was like a thousand."
The Belcourt might have been the classiest venue for any of the private fan-club shows that take place during the mornings and afternoons of CMA Fest week. The storied 88-year- often hall often plays host to Americana concerts as well as art and revival films, and Bentley noted he'd seen quite a few of his buddies there. "I feel like this is a pretty good venue, right? Nice seats?... In all the venues we’ve done (the Last Call Ball), eight times now, I feel like every venue we’ve picked is either too hot or the stage isn’t high enough or it’s crowded." Shouted a fan: "It’s not 105 degrees!" "I know, we’re improving," the singer responded. "It just took us eight years to get there, but we’ve got some air conditioning."
Dierks live [Chris Willman]A couple of nights earlier, before he played for 60,000 people at LP Field instead of the Belcourt's exclusive 320, Bentley talked about some changes devotees might expect before they hear Riser, although he wasn't terribly specific about the sonic differences in store.
"I wanted to do something different," he said. "One of the guys that wrote 'Tip It On Back,' Ross Copperman, I really liked his demo and decided I wanted to work with him." He also talked about "Bourbon in Kentucky," the first single, which fans are just now hearing. "I realized after making the last six records that it had been 17 songs in a row that I wrote that we released to country radio, and I never set out to do that. I really wanted to find great outside songs… I had written a bunch with Hillary Lindsey before, and then I heard the song that she and Ryan Tyndell wrote and just loved it, and Ross did a great job producing it. It felt great but I felt like we could really use a cool voice to go along with it, and I asked Kacey (Musgraves) and she went for it… That song kind of signals a change of sound on this record. It’s just who I am. You guys know me. I love trying different things, whether it’s the bluegrass record or on this record going for really different sounds. But the main thing about this record was finding really great songs, whether I wrote ‘em or someone else wrote ‘em."