Dierks Bentley called nearly 2 ½ hours late, so he apologized and left his cell-phone number on the message machine.
A country star giving his cell number to a newspaper reporter? That seems as likely as the Dixie Chicks getting a White House dinner invitation. But Bentley is the kind of guy who’ll sometimes help his crew set up before a show, or pack up at the end of the night. The kind of guy who’ll play a club gig after an arena show.
His take-care-of-business dedication and hard-working, fan-pleasing approach are among the reasons why music-business insiders say Bentley is country music’s next big headline attraction.
Carrie Underwood has sold more albums. So has Sugarland. But they can’t match Bentley’s record as a road warrior. In the past two years, he’s traveled 250,000 miles and played more than 350 shows—including stadium concerts as opening act for Kenny Chesney.
This fall Bentley began his first trek as headliner—the Locked and Loaded Tour. “Kenny (Chesney) says I should call it `The Pipe and Drape Tour’ because we have to close off half the building,” Bentley joked. His crew hangs curtains across the middle of the arena to make a more intimate space for 3,000 to 7,000 people.
An uncalculating self-promoter, Bentley is alternately earnest and spirited, a Harley rider with a tender heart whom women want to take home and guys want to have a beer with. In fact, he keeps a keg or a few cases onstage. He’s serious about both the music making and the merrymaking.
“Every night feels like the first time,” he said from his tour bus in Dallas. “It’s flattering, it’s humbling, it’s an honor, it’s exciting and new—all at the same time.”
After two tours with Chesney, he released his third album last month—high time, he figured, to take the financial risk and responsibility of headlining.
He gets to choose the staging, the lighting, the sound system, the cities and venues, and the opening acts. Each day he checks in with his lighting director, his guitar techs and his business manager. He calls newspapers and radio stations in the morning, goes to the gym in the afternoon, does a soundcheck at the arena, meets with fans before and after the show.
The bottom line: It’s his name that sells the tickets.
“It’s definitely a risk and it’s scary, but it’s fun to be in charge,” he said. “I always want to be a step ahead of what we can afford to have. To me, everything’s riding on that show. Kenny Chesney’s not going to ride out on a white horse and save the show if it goes south.”
It’s a chance to apply lessons he learned on the road with Chesney and George Strait.
“The thing I learned most from Kenny is to have fun,” he said. “There are a lot of people in the business who aren’t having fun; they’re getting caught up in the crap and bogged down by all the B.S. We try to keep it loose and fun backstage so when we go onstage we have a good time, too.”
From Strait, he learned to “always put the music first.” The Country Hall of Famer does his own soundcheck before every show (some stars just have their bands do it). So does Bentley.
Bentley, who turned 31 Monday, is a curly-haired, three-day-bearded, blue-jeans, T-shirt, backward-cap kind of dude. More than any other male country star, he looks like he could have stepped out of the audience onto the stage.
He’s a bit of a rogue, said Brian Phillips, general manager of Country Music Television. At shows, he sometimes cranks out classic-rock power chords, and clears away the first few rows of seats—mosh pit?—so he can jump into the crowd and party with his people.
Asked to describe himself, Bentley turned all humble. “Grateful, blessed, hard-working,” he said, then broke away from the phone interview to consult his wife.
“Cassidy just said `hot,’” he said, Cassidy Black, who was his high-school sweetheart, helped come up with three more adjectives: fun-loving, genuine and sincere.
Growing up in a nonmusical family in Phoenix, Dierks (it’s a family surname) got hooked on Van Halen and electric guitar at age 13, but four years later caught the country bug from Hank Williams Jr.
In 1994, he moved to Nashville to pursue music but also enrolled at Vanderbilt University, studying English for three-plus years. “I was a good C student,” he said earnestly.
For a time he worked at cable’s the Nashville Network as a researcher, screening classic concert footage. It was like Country Music 101 for him.
Three years ago, Capitol Records released his self-titled debut, which sold 1 million copies and resulted in a No. 1 single (“What Was I Thinkin’”). So did the 2005 followup, “Modern Day Drifter,” with the hit “Come a Little Closer.”
He boosted his profile last year with two prestigious honors: the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award for best newcomer, and membership in the Grand Ole Opry—inducted at age 29, making him the youngest in that exclusive club. His new CD, “Long Trip Alone,” went to No. 1 and produced another No. 1 single: “Every Mile a Memory.”
After four years on the road, he had a lot of memories—and then figured out a way “to get a girl in the song somehow,” he said. His most vivid memories are of gigs: “Someone can tell me a city or a bar, and I can usually remember what happened that night.”
In January, this road dog plans a club tour. In February, he’ll release a live DVD from a nightclub show in Denver.
Said Bentley: “Every show, you want to give it everything you’ve got. And I’m just taking it one show at a time.”
Bentley’s first job in Nashville was screening historic concert footage for the Nashville Network. Here are three of his most memorable videos:
Hank Williams on “The Kate Smith Show”: “He’s an icon, and there’s not a lot of footage of him out there. Seeing any footage of him is the coolest thing.”
George Jones, Farm Aid: “It was `86, if I remember right. That was my favorite one. Bon Jovi was there. It was a pretty cool deal. I like the old Jones footage from back in the day when he was wild and crazy.”
“The Johnny Cash Show”: “It was just a ground-breaking (TV) show. He had Neil Young on there. It was very cool to see how country music crossed over and became America’s music, and not just a side genre.”