Dierks Bentley: Using bluegrass as a base, then adding the other component he has mastered—truly fiery, totally committed bruising burners flecked with rock ‘n’ roll propulsion and hard country muscle, with a couple of affecting, open hearted ballads for a change of pace and narrative flow.

A Paler Shade Of Blue(grass)
Dierks Bentley makes good, and does good, on Up On the Ridge
By David McGee

Up On the Ridge
Dierks Bentley
Capitol Nashville

If "Better Believer" is Bentley's soul talking, his heart may well be found in the album's closer, the bluegrass barnburner devoted to that old demon alcohol's call to heal a broken heart in "Last Call," penned by Ronnie McCoury and featuring Ronnie on mandolin, his brother Rob on banjo and an uncredited but familiar-voiced tenor duet partner otherwise known as the pater familias of the McCoury family, along with Bryan Sutton on acoustic guitar, Randy Kohrs on dobro, and McCoury band stalwarts Alan Bartram on upright bass and the great fiddler Jason Carter. Bentley and Del are practically giddy exchanging verses on this good-humored sprint, and both men leave plenty of room for each instrumentalist to add a dazzling solo to the proceedings—it's bluegrass picking and singing at its finest. And therein lies a clue. Bentley's state of the art arena shows typically feature an acoustic segment in which his deep affection for traditional country and bluegrass is abundantly evident, and throughout his career he's been fairly vocal about his love of roots music. The man knows bluegrass, and feels it in his bones. Toby and Trace may always be Toby and Trace, but Dierks, in another decade or so, might well follow his muse to where the grass is blue, getting back to where he once belonged. At the end of "Last Call," when the music stops, the track continues, leaving intact the studio chatter and laughter all around. Someone says, "Believe I'll have another," and the record's over. You have to believe Dierks Bentley probably will have another, just like "Last Call." (TheBluegrassSpecial.com, February 2009 review of Dierks Bentley’s Feel That Fire)

You read it here first, folks, back in February of 2009, an unflinching prediction that mainstream country superstar Dierks Bentley was headed exactly where he has landed on Up On the Ridge, his new bluegrass-influenced album. Now, bluegrass purists, calm down—Dierks has not gone whole hog into your territory. He is using your music as a base, then adding the other component he has mastered—truly fiery, totally committed bruising burners flecked with rock ‘n’ roll propulsion and hard country muscle, with a couple of affecting, open hearted ballads for a change of pace and narrative flow. As per the latter, Bentley’s previous long player was centered almost exclusively on his pursuit of the opposite sex in scenario’s Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer would describe succinctly as “she pursued, and I withdrew; I pursued, and she withdrew…” This time out, he’s still musing over love in its various manifestations, but also looking beyond, to the challenge of Bob Dylan’s “Senor,” and, in the album’s only misfire, to an exalted form of agape in U2’s anthemic “Pride (In the Name Of Love),” a song that probably never had a chance of being good in this context because it simply doesn’t lend itself to a rootsy setting (then there are those of us who always agree with the Internet wiseacre who names every new U2 album as “Worst Album of the Year,” and list the worst songs of the year as being those on said U2 album in proper sequential order). Actually, you don’t have to wait until “Senor,” the fourth track, to hear the new wrinkle in Bentley’s focus here—the dirge-like opening ballad, “Down In the Mine,” the latest in a seemingly endless stream of tragedies-in-song born of the coal mining life in Harlan County; it may be heresy to compare it to Merle Travis’s “Dark As a Dungeon,” but in fact its unsparing portrait of death and despair (it centers on the demise of five miners and includes the unforgettable observation of a job that entails “12 hours a day digging your grave way down in the mine”) is every bit as chilling as Travis’s classic, and certainly gets the album off to a thoughtful, somber start. Bentley doesn’t waste much more time getting with it, though, as he emerges from his mining tale with “Up On the Ridge,” a restless, bustling, mandolin- and banjo-fired romp celebrating the freedom and sensual pleasures of the mountain way, especially when there’s a member of the opposite sex around to share in the pursuits he extols.

Dierks Bentley, Senor at Brooklyn Recording with Punch Brothers
An inside look at the recording of Bob Dylan’s ‘Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)’ at Brooklyn Recording, with the Punch Brothers. George Carlin would advise Bentley to ‘spin that hat around.’

Bentley at least stays true to the spirit of bluegrass, not only with respect to subject matter, but in approach—no stranger to the electric guitar and all the power it can generate, he goes all-acoustic here. And no more messes around in that department than he does in any other. His musical co-conspirators in crafting all these atmospheric soundscapes represent the finest in the genre’s traditional and progressive wings; we’re talking the entire Del McCoury Band, for instance, fiddler Stuart Duncan, dobroist for the ages Rob Ickes and, most memorably, Chris Thile on mandolin and vocals. The latter writes his name large on Up On the Ridge with yet more breathtakingly melodic, circuitous mandolin flourishes adding precisely the right measure of Spanish-tinged ambience to Bob Dylan’s enigmatic parable “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),” which seems to be set both in the present and in some distant, dusty past and populated by a motley cast of ne’er do wells intent on doing dirt to an unsuspecting gringo—read into this what you will with regard to current geopolitics—whose expressive protestations are given voice by Thile’s own crying tenor and Bentley’s huskier retorts. For fans of barnburning bluegrass, give in to the frisky charms of “Rovin’ Gambler,” a no-holds romp about a man drawn to his risky pursuits, away from family and loved ones and straight into jail for murdering a cheatin’ dealer. Nothing sad about it, though—it’s a celebration of high spirits and high stakes, jetting along at a frantic pace, with injections of fleet-fingered and –bowed solos from Thile and his fellow Punch Brothers (who, admittedly, do their best to make “Pride (In the Name of Love)” soar; alas…). For a gritty, tough-minded country stomp on the Verlon Thompson-Suzi Ragsdale gem, “Bad Angel,” Bentley brings in Miranda Lambert for a memorable whiskey-voiced verse and chorus, before she yields the mic to the throaty growl of Jamey Johnson, who proceeds to bring it on home in fine, grinding fashion.

Dierks Bentley, Up On the Ridge
During a power outage on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Dierks Bentley and band perform the title song of his new album, Up On the Ridge. Sam Bush on mandolin, the Del McCoury Band’s Jason Carter on fiddle.

Picking up where he left off thematically on Feel That Fire, Bentley offers looks at the mating game from the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. As per the former, the spirited, fiddle-driven come-on of “Fiddlin’ Around” is true to its double-edged title, as our man tries to coax a reluctant gal to give him a whirl while Stuart Duncan cuts loose with a heat-inducing, near-song-length fiddle solo comparable in intensity to Bentley’s heated sweet nothings. The artist whose vulnerability was one of the most appealing features of Feel That Fire surfaces on his co-write with Jon Randall Stewart, the beautiful “Draw Me a Map,” a bald-faced admission of his need to be schooled in the finer points of commitment, a plea enhanced with ethereal plaintiveness by Alison Krauss’s supporting vocal. By contrast, Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Love Grows Wild” provides Bentley a chance to testify to the enduring strength to be drawn from hearts entwined in love and real passion that comes from a meaningful connection, and the tenderness in his singing tells us he understands this truth to its core. Though the album ends with Kris Kristofferson’s whimsical drinking song, “Bottom To the Bottle” (with a ragged vocal from Kris himself to boot), the Bentley of “Love Grows Wild” would seem to be the precursor of his next album-length treatise on matters of import to the lovelorn. This is rich territory, and Bentley sounds ready to start excavating for its greater rewards. You read it here first.

Up On the Ridge is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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