Bentley’s resume’ reads likes a wish list for rising country stars. Schooled in the classic sounds of Jones and Jennings, Bentley first burst onto radio airwaves with 2003’s “What Was I Thinkin’,” a song that flies along at breakneck speed as a frisky fellow navigates Friday night with his lady love.
Since then, Bentley has flown the flag for men who sport a little sensitivity to match their macho desires. In five years at Capitol Nashville, he’s built a commercial portfolio that rivals the top stars in country music. With three million albums sold, newcomer trophies from the CMA and ACM and induction into the Grand Ole Opry, he’s nudged his way into the upper echelon of country music. His traditionalist bent has won him veteran admirers, and the pop sheen applied to his rough-and-tumble tales is perfectly suited to the tastes of an ever-evolving mainstream audience.
In the spirit of Waylon and Willie and all the other highwaymen that shaped the outlaw movement in the ’70s, Dierks Bentley has mirrored their love of traveling days and honky-tonk nights. Bridging the gap between the old and new generations, he’s made himself a household word in locales from Bangor to Biloxi through his exhaustive concert schedule (250-300 dates per year) and his regular-dude attitude. His boyish charm, married to some of the catchiest tunes in modern country music, has yielded significant rewards.
If you’re late to the party, all of Bentley’s signature tunes are included. Culled from his first three discs, Greatest Hits: Every Mile a Memory is a straightforward collection that boasts all of Bentley’s ten Top 10s singles and positions him as his generation’s musical troubadour. Particularly on Modern Day Drifter and Long Trip Alone, he presented challenging material that balanced barroom anthems and bedroom ballads with equal grace, a seamless transition that few in Nashville replicate with the same sense of purpose. Brett Beavers’ production hews closely to modern country, but also incorporates bluegrass licks and amped-up guitars that allows Bentley’s best stuff to shine.
On the sexy “Come a Little Closer,” he’s smoothing over a lover’s quarrel by proposing physical intimacy. On the spirited “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)”, he playfully dashes down the interstate with boundless optimism. And he dares to balance romance and the road on “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do,” with a Waylon-esque groove unabashedly coarsing through the melody. “Settle for a Slowdown” and “Every Mile a Memory” plow similar ground, playing out the various stages of love and highway life.
Greatest Hits: Every Mile a Memory would be a bit flimsy if not for a few added features. He enlisted fans to help select the track listing, title and cover, and 3,000 of them are credited as executive producers in the CD booklet. And the album’s five live tracks provide a glimpse into the touring exploits of Bentley, whose presence at such fringe festivals as Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza has broadened his appeal beyond the confines of commercial country. The worthiest addition is “Wish It Would Break,” a song of exquisite sadness that cleverly details the aftereffect of a faded love affair. A pair of new tracks, “Sweet & Wild” (blessed with the harmony vocal of Sarah Buxton) and “With The Band” add purchasing value while fitting tightly into Bentley’s favorite roles, suave paramour and seasoned road warrior.
Today’s country music is a cleaner, safer arena, devoid of the dramas that, at times, consumed Bentley’s heroes. The giants of the genre had their fair share of drug binges, prison terms and volatile romances, troubles that a modern-day Nashville record exec would tame with a little media training. The market-driven age has, for the most part, sanitized today’s star factory; bad behavior is now the exception, not the rule. That’s a mixed blessing; the format’s superstars now lead impeccably-manicured careers, yet they have limited exposure to the rich source material provided by dank barrooms and dangerous romances. But in his songs, Bentley balances sinful impulses with a sense of straight-and-narrow purpose, a formula that appeals to fans who crave unflinching truth in their music.
As Music Row limps to the finish line in this year of economic squalor, Bentley is prepping his next studio album, Feel That Fire (due February 3), the first major release of 2009. So far, he’s thrived by tweaking the commonly-accepted rules of Music Row. And on his greatest hits collection, Bentley exhibits just the type of forward thinking that warrants a promotion to the very top of Nashville hitmakers. Bentley is no substitute for his idols, but he’s quickly becoming a hillbilly star worthy of such status.