Album Review: Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge

by

June 8, 2010

Dierks Bentley
Up on the Ridge

As Dan observed in his single review of “Up on the Ridge”, there was a noticeable decline in Dierks Bentley’s music after his well received Long Trip Alone album. It is purely speculative to suggest, but one can’t help but wonder if Bentley himself felt staleness creeping into his music as well. It’s not farfetched for the idea to be true, since Dierks has proven himself to be an astute artist in the past. So, why wouldn’t he notice if there was, indeed, a shift?

Speculation aside, Bentley has taken a break from the routine of his last four albums to create an album that is far removed from what is popular on mainstream country radio and somewhat different than what he’s put on his own previous albums. However, he is still marketing to radio, as his first single, the title track, has been treated like any other Bentley single release. The album is not as adventurous, or as strong, as the Dixie Chicks’ unapologetically acoustic album, but it may be as close to the concept as we have gotten since their targeted mainstream acoustic project, Home.

It has been appropriately publicized that this album is not a pure bluegrass project. Instead, it is close in style to the bluegrass influenced tracks that Bentley has consistently included on each of his studio albums. Yes, mandolin, banjo, dobro and fiddle are ever present, but Bentley is not shy about using drums, exploring subversive melodies (“Up on the Ridge”, “Fallin’ for You”), or deviating from traditional bluegrass rules of engagement along the way. Moreover, Bentley does not possess the high lonesome tenor that is typically associated with bluegrass. He, however, proves himself to be a capable vocalist within the parameters of his unique style of it.

A handful of covers, songs by well respected songwriters, and some of Bentley’s own compositions makes this rootsy album a well rounded set. The best of the covers is bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) and Kris Kristofferson’s Bottle to the Bottom”. While the otherwise solid “Bottle to the Bottom” features a somewhat pointless cameo by Kristofferson, the addition of the Punch Brothers on “Senor” is inspired art. A less successful cover is U2’s “Pride (in the Name of Love).” While Del McCoury’s distinctive tenor does well to do the heavy lifting, the over all recording still lacks the etherealness of the original. Ironically, as they are most closely associated with Americana, the Buddy Miller cover is the most mainstream friendly sounding song on the album. Unfortunately, it is also inferior to Miller’s version.

Among the strongest of Bentley’s songs is “Rovin’ Gambler” (once again, with the Punch Brothers), “Draw Me a Map” (featuring Alison Krauss on background vocals), “You’re Dead to Me” (co-written by and featuring Tim O’Brien”, and “Down in the Mine.”

Bentley wisely enlists the help of some of his creative friends such as the Punch Brothers (with Chris Thile of Nickel Creek fame), Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, Tim O’Brien, and Kris Kristofferson. Complimented by Jon Randall’s organic production sensibilities, this impeccable support adds a welcome texture to the project. However, the collaborations work best when they are more subtle. For instance, while the prospect of Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson collaborating is, indeed, an appealing concept, the result does not rise to the occasion in practice. Both Lambert and Johnson deliver excellent performances with Bentley on “Bad Angel”, with Lambert’s voice being huskier than usual, but the parts together translate as more disjointed than natural. Likewise, the results of Del McCoury’s and Kris Kristofferson’s contributions were not as successful as one would hope for from such revered artists. On the other hand, the Punch Brothers (who played on several tracks), Alison Krauss, Tim O’Brien, Jon Randall, and Vince Gill (“Fiddlin’ Around”) were used less overtly to greater effect.

With expert musicianship by the best in the business, solid songs, and impressive vocal support, Up on the Ridge is a refreshing album from an artist who is taking a chance with this musical detour while still in the throes of a considerably lucrative career. Not only is taking such a chance commendable, Bentley has created a solid album to justify the diversion.


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  1. Corey EbertNo Gravatar says:

    I really hope some of these songs get a shot on the radio. I’ve long thought that many of his songs (album cuts) deserve to be heard, but of course some songs are pushed ahead of others (Sideways, most noticeably). I remember seeing him in concert just a few days before his first cd was to be released (What Was I Thinkin’ was climbing the charts) and he said the Wish It Would Break was to be his second single. Of course, that song was never released (My Last Name and How Am I Doin’ were chosen instead) but definitely deserved to be heard.

    Also, I have read elsewhere about complaints that it is not truly “bluegrass”. But, would it not be somewhat inauthentic, for a mainstream country artist to make a truly bluegrass album. Doesn’t putting parts of one’s own style into the music make it more relevant and artistically authentic? Just a thought.

  2. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    This album makes Dierks one of the good guys in my book. And it sounds as though the album as a whole is better than the title cut/lead single which is what I was hoping.

    It is also my hope that Sara Evans is watching all this with interest, and gets inspired to return to HER Bluegrass roots!

  3. Julia C HNo Gravatar says:

    I am downloading this record as a type.

    My concern with this album has always been with Capitol and if they truly gave some leeway to Dierks to do as he saw fit and achieve what he had initially envisaged for the project.

  4. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Julia,
    I had the same concern. When I think about it though, I think it sounds like Dierks pretty much did what he wanted to do. Much of the sound of this record is similar to the bluegrass tracks that he’s included on each of his past records, which is how I’ve reached this conclusion.

  5. Julia C HNo Gravatar says:

    Leeann,
    After listening to the record twice over, I tend to agree with you Leeann. I think Dierks succeeded in what he set out to do and he delivered a solid record in the process.

  6. Paul DennisNo Gravatar says:

    Pretty decent record – would have preferred it to be a bit more grassy, and a couple of the selections (most notably “Senor” and “Pride”) are weak material, but in all, four stars seems about right

  7. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    I picked up DB’s record today, based on Leeanne’s fine review and some others like it, and I was not dissapointed. Not much, anyway.

    Here’s my take on it. I was hoping to be surprised by better than expected vocals from Dierks, but was not. His limited vocal ability is the weak link in an otherwise great album..but like Dylan, Tom Petty, and Kris Kristofferson his voice is distinctive and has character, and while not classically Grassy, he gets the job done nontheless.

    I think this is a fun record, and any lack of authenticity is compensated by earnest sincerity.

    Album closer “Down in The Mine” seems to me an anemic derivative of You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, and cannot compare with the dignified and devastating Loveless classic…likewise there is nothing on Up On the Ridge that matches the lofty caliber of Mountain Soul II’s stunning versions of Busted and Diamond in My Crown.

    But misgivings aside, Up on The Ridge demonstrates just how compelling a mainstream Country artist can sound when their voice is mated to virtuosic Appalachain acoustics, and it makes me wonder if this fine album will start a trend and become a rootsy remedy for the artificially flavored Nashville Pop that passes for Country music today. I sure hope so.

  8. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    I just want to add that I do really like Down in the Mine, it has some great lyrics and an important message, much like “Harlan”, but musically and vocally it just doesnt have the timeless impact of Patty’s classic, or similar themed stuff from Kathy Mattea’s Coal ablum.

    And I forgot to add that I really like Rovin’ Gambler and consider it the most memorable cut on the album..with a real, classic Bluegrass sound.

  9. CWLNo Gravatar says:

    Senor is absolutely NOT weak material. Taking what Dylan did and breathing some fresh air into ta catchy ballad with a bluegrass feel is brilliant. Great CD and an overdue turn away from the overdone pop country that comes out far too frequently today.

  10. Carol AnnNo Gravatar says:

    I’m not really impressed overall with the album, I’m with you LeAnn. If I chose a favorite, it would be “Senor”.

    I don’t quite understand the comparisons to Patty Loveless records though?

  11. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    Carol Ann,

    Patty’s Mountain Soul records are similar in that they are also Bluegrass/Mountain albums made by a Country music singer. She was not the first to do this, but her records are certainly amoung the best and most critically acclaimed of their kind. If the Bentley record can be compared to the Dixie Chicks “Home”, why NOT Patty’s Mountain Soul I and II?

    I think Patty has the advantage of a real Mountain upbringing in the Coal mining regions of Kentucky, and that natural, twangy Mountain timbre is infused in her voice. She grew up listening to this stuff, and early in her career, started performing Bluegrass as well. Loveless wrote a Mountain masterpiece at the age of 14 called Sounds of Loneliness..and that song moved Porter Wagoner to take Patty under his wing and become her mentor.

    I think Patty Loveless and Kathy Mattea, (who also did a similar record called Coal) can sing circles around Dierks, especially Loveless when it comes to this type of music. Bluegrass is her heritage, it is part of her right down to her bones, and in her blood.

    Dierks discovered this type of music when he came to Nashville, at around 19 I believe. I do believe he has a genuine love for the music, and it shows. What he lacks in real Mountain authenticity, he makes up for with earnest sincerity. He is also quite humble about this and admits he is still learning the Mountain craft.

    My point is that when compared to the Loveless and Mattea albums, (and Dolly’s and Emmylou’s Bluegrass records before them) Dierks record comes up a little short. But when compared to what passes for Country music today, his album outclasses most current offerings by leaps and bounds. This is a great album, but the Loveless and Mattea records are even better, imo.

    But there is a direct, amost derivative link, a stong similarity of kind, between the Bentley album closer “Down in the Mine” with the dignified and devastating Loveless classic “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Both great songs and I have no doubt that Jon Randall who produced the DB album,(and co-wrote the closing song,) and has also worked very closly with Patty Loveless, was inspired by You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive. But Patty’s “Harlan” is the far better song and performance.

    I just wish Patty would get a little more credit, at least for inspiration. There is a tone in a lot of these Bentley reviews that Dierks is doing something unprecedented, incredibly daring and uniquely innovative…It is a good album, even great and a breath of fresh air, but none of these other characterizations are true.

  12. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Just to clarify, I only compared his album to the Chicks because as acoustic/bluegrass/New Grass sounding albums, they were both released at high points in their mainstream careers. While Patty’s album is better than this one, and even relevant as a comparison, it was released after her commercial success had considerably declined. That’s also likely why this album is being lauded as something different. Not because nobody has done it before, but the timing is unusual.

  13. Paul DennisNo Gravatar says:

    At least the timing is unusual for a modern day artist. In the past Porter Wagoner, Rose Maddox and Buck Owens issued bluegrass albums in midcareer and Carl Smith issued one while he still had some commercial oomph, although quite a few years past peak

  14. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Leeann, But what is often overlooked here (by some anyway) is that despite the timing of the original Mountain Soul, this album was in Patty all along and it was just a matter of time before her Appalachian roots were fully expressed and realized.

    Early indications of this were her inclusions of some real Mountain songs in her early Country records, such as her cover of the Stanley Brother’s I’ll Never Grow Tired of You and Claire Lynch’s Some Morning Soon.

    But no matter what the timing, I also give Dierks a heck of a lot of credit for doing this, and Patty too for her enrichment of the musical landscape with her Mountain offerings that continue to this day. :)

  15. Carol AnnNo Gravatar says:

    I understand, it just seems like hijacking a Dierks Bentley thread to again discuss Patty, when it really belongs in a Patty discussion.

    Moving on-

    I WILL say that I like this record better than just about any of his last ones.

  16. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    There is a converse to the timing argument as well..it can be said that it is precisely BECAUSE a given artist is at the height of their career that it is not such a risk for them to undertake somthing different, since they have already secured a solid foundation that mininmizes risk should the creative project founder.

    Brad Paisley’s mostly intrumental album Play was also called risky, but his career, like Dierks was (and is) on such solid ground that could easily sustain and recover from any single commercial disaster.

    If Patty’s Mountain Soul album had failed, that may well have finished her off commercially, so there was a risk there as well. But thankfully Mountain Soul garnered sufficient commercial sucess to sustain her recording career, and certainly enough artistic acclaim to secure her place as one of the true and timeless artists of Country and Bluegrass music.

  17. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    Carol Ann, references to other artists in context are not hijackings, you asked for clarification as to the relevance of the Loveless reference, so I gave you one, albeit perhaps an overly lenghty one. Certianly no hijacking intended, and sorry if it came accross that way.

  18. TheresaNo Gravatar says:

    Well, the song “Up on the Ridge” made me sit up and take notice, enough so that I went searching for the artist on the web so that I can go buy the album.

  19. billjNo Gravatar says:

    I could not read this review because some stupid M&M add popped up right in front of the article. It did not go away.

    Great.

  20. This is the first album I’ve heard in quite a while from anyone where I actually felt like the artists making it were having fun from start to finish. As for the covers, I think it’s important not to ask whether they hold up to the original recordings, but whether these arrangements work in the context of this album. I have to say, I think every one of them does.

    Also, “Rovin’ Gambler” isn’t a Dierks original. It’s in the public domain and he arranged it.

  21. CraigNo Gravatar says:

    Musically, this album is great. Lots of talented individuals have contributed, and it shows. Chris Thile (formerly of Nickel Creek) and his new band Punch Brothers may not be as well known as some of the others, but they are perfect in this supporting role. I understand where reviewers are coming about suggesting Dierks’ voice is perhaps the weak link on the album, but I think that is more a credit to the ability of the various musicians who contribute here, as opposed to a knock against Dierks.

    As for songs, “Pride” surprised me….never would have through that a bluegrassy rendition of a U2 song could be pulled off so well.

    If I had to pick a weak link, it would be the title track “Up on the Ridge”….but still not a song I’d skip when listening to the album. The rest of the tracks are solid, and a refreshing change of pace for country music.

  22. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Travis,
    Thank you for the correction.

  23. Incidentally, for those who are interested, the latest episode of Dierks’s podcast radio series (Dierks Bentley’s The Thread) is dedicated to discussing this album. I just downloaded it, but haven’t played it yet to be able to comment on how insightful or interesting it is, but it runs 51:06 and it’s free.

  24. skinny bNo Gravatar says:

    Hey this album should be around 4.5 stars and if the sole reason for some of you state differ due to senor and pride then you need to listen again.The object was to do something different and i really believed it was pulled off. Solid work, better than these hurry sing along pop country stuff.

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