Dierks Bentley recently invited a handful of influential radio programmers to come to a Nashville studio and hear a half-dozen of the new tracks he's working on—and we were on the scene. If you've asked yourself "Am I the only one (who can't wait to hear Dierks' next one)," no, you're hardly alone, and we've got a tantalizing sneak preview of what you can expect when the album comes out in July or August.
Of course, serious Bentley fans are already well aware of the first single, "Am I the Only One," which arrived at country radio this week, and which goes on sale at iTunes March 29. (He's also been performing the tune in concert; see a fan-filmed video clip, below.) Being a party anthem in the tradition of "Sideways," "Am I the Only One" is an obvious choice for the album's leadoff single... obvious maybe to everyone but Dierks, anyway.
"We were playing different songs for the label," the singer explained, "and I hadn't played this one for (Capitol Nashville head Mike) Dungan or anyone yet. I was sitting there with my eyes closed, smiling and singing along with the song and having a great time, when I feel something hit me in the head. I'm thinking, what was that? And Dungan's looking at me and says, 'That's your [expletive] single!... Where has that been? You had me worried, brother!' I said, 'Hey, we're still working on the record!' I'd never had someone throw a book at me. But if you know Mike, that's the way he is—passionate. When the president of your label throws something at you, it's pretty wild."
Here's something wilder: The other five tracks we heard from the album were even better—even if Dungan wasn't necessarily wrong about the pick for first single.
It seems almost inconceivable that the second single from the project won't be country-classic-in-the-making "Diamonds Make Babies." It's shaped in the form of a warning to a friend who is about to propose to a girlfriend. At some stops on his current tour, Bentley has even been picking engaged couples out of the crowd to serenade them with the cautionary tale. Lyrics include:
That thing is more than a simple stone
It's got some crazy powers all its own...
Diamonds make babies
And babies make mamas
And mamas make daddies make changes they don't always wanna...
As domestic as this song is, it sounds a little like one of his most famously anti-domestic tunes. "It's got a little bit of that 'Lot of Leavin' Left to Do' sound in the mix somewhere," he said. "I tried to get a little bit of a Waylon thing, with Paul Franklin playing steel guitar again, but also give it a fresh feel."
Bentley didn't write "Diamonds Make Babies," though; Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton did. He explained: "This record, I really listened for as many outside songs as possible. Every song I've ever put out to country radio before has been stuff that I've written. I know this is kind of the opposite approach of what most (country) people are trying to do. A lot of people would love to write more of their own songs and have them on the radio, but I'm dying to find some outside stuff. I started writing for this record in October, but my producer and I also listened to thousands of songs. I took my first road trip to Asheville"—the North Carolina city where he's been recording the album—"just to listen to songs for 10 hours. On this album I actually cut four outside songs, that being one of them, which is great, because I just hadn't done that enough."
Dierks slowed down the pace by playing a couple of ballads in the "Settle for a Slowdown" vein. "When You Gonna Come Around" brilliantly encapsulates the mixed emotions of a guy who's in love with a sweet but wary girl and tiring of waiting for their slow-starting relationship to move from friendship mode into the next gear. "We've never been together, it's just something we talk about," he sings early on in the song, before getting to the crux of the matter:
I've been waiting with a heart full of love just for you to say it feels right enough
I've been waiting and I'm wondering when you're gonna give in and just give it up
Your love is the sweetest thing I have ever found
So when you gonna come around
Rest assured that hearts will melt like Hershey's in Tennessee humidity when that one comes around to country radio.
But the same could be said of "You're Still in My Heart in My Head," which isn't any less emotionally primal for being a little more cleverly phrased. "I don't have to be alone tonight," he sings, going on to explain the poignant conditions of his non-solitude: "You never left, in my head... You're still in that T-shirt on my bed/You're ever song that's on/You're gone/But you're in my arms in my head." It's the kind of lost-love anthem that gives mopeyness a grand name.
"In my home state, in Tucson, that shooting tragedy had just happened. I was thinking about it all the time, in the back of my head. It's slightly connected to that, in a way," he said, although the lyrics about the "blessed motherland" don't directly reference the incident. Sample lyric: "Scars, yeah, she's got her scars/Sometimes it starts to worry me/I don't want to lose sight of who we are..."
But of course Bentley was bound to bring things back down—in this case, with a preview of a song called "Bring It Back Down," which on first listen sounded like a wordier, lighter, and more uptempo variation on "Come a Little Closer." The verses provide a laundry list of contemporary distractions—celebrity culture, talk radio, YouTube, rampant consumerism—while the chorus proposes finding a place to shut all that out: "With nothing but the sound of a whipporwill playing/Let's get lost in the love we're making."
Bentley hasn't exactly been slacking on the job these last few years, with albums as strong as last year's quasi-bluegrass departure, Up on the Ridge. But as the songs I've been using as comparisons—"Lot of Leavin'," "Slowdown," "Come a Little Closer"—might suggest, his sophomore effort, 2005's Modern Day Drifter, remains a hard benchmark to beat. If the rest of the material is as strong as what he pulled out to preview, this one could shape up as his strongest since then and be a contender for country album of the year.
Getting outside of Nashville for the recording has helped inspire him, he said. Up on the Ridge ended up being recorded largely in New York after a Nashville start, and "it was the last place you'd think of to go to make a country-bluegrass kind of thing," as he points out. This time, he figured Asheville was just far enough away to escape the buzz-killing, too-close-to-home vibe.
Taking your esteemed session players to another city, away from their families, to a keg-friendly studio is one way to make sure you're not "the only one who wants to have fun tonight."
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- Dierks Bentley