Dierks Bentley has released four studio albums since signing with Capitol Nashville in 2003 and joining the ranks of country music stardom. However, while each release was good in its own right and had multiple charting singles, there was little if any variety from one album to the next, and Bentley seemed to be stuck in a rut. When it was announced that his next project would be a bluegrass-inspired album, many fans wondered whether or not he’d be able to pull it off.
Bentley assembled a large supporting cast to record Up on the Ridge, collaborating with artists both from the past (in the form of Kris Kristofferson and Del McCoury) as well as the present (Miranda Lambert and the Punch Brothers). Throughout the dozen tracks on the album, Bentley and his cohorts successfully combine those traditional influences with modern sound and production and produce something very unique. Efforts like this are usually hit or miss, and while the end result can definitely not be considered a pure bluegrass record, it shouldn’t be considered just a “country” album either.
While not every track from Up on the Ridge is bluegrass-heavy, and the majority of the songs might sound just as good if recorded with the same modern pop-country feel of Bentley’s earlier work, in some cases this sound works much better. The tongue-in-cheek humor on tracks like “You’re Dead to Me” and “Bottle to the Bottom”, both focusing on the theme of love and loss, are a pair of standouts where the upbeat picking and twang meshes perfectly with the lyrics, and if either were heard at a county fair in the 1950s they would seem just as at home then as they do being played through the earbuds of a modern digital music player today. “Rovin’ Gambler” is another such track, and “Bad Angel” — with its tale of “…standing at the crossroads of temptation and salvation streets…” — is an instant classic that anyone who has faced a late night/early morning decision as to whether to stay out and roll the dice one more time or to cash in the chips and go home should easily be able to relate to.
In addition to original work, Bentley also performs a number of cover songs on the album. One of these is an exceptionally good rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”, which in its updated form sounds as good — or perhaps even better — than the original. Bentley’s take on Buddy Miller’s “Love Grows Wild” also sounds right at home on Up on the Ridge. However, while definitely an interesting take on a classic pop song, the inclusion of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” seems somewhat out of place, and is the only track on the entire album that doesn’t fit in with the rest.
At times, the art of thoughtfully composing an album as opposed to just stringing a series of singles together to fill the space seems lost, and perhaps today is really no more or less prevalent than it was during eras when music was released in different formats, but Bentley scores a point in that regard with Up on the Ridge. From start to finish, the album tracks transition well from one to the next (even the U2 cover), starting and ending with two aptly-titled songs — “Up on the Ridge” and “Down in the Mine”. Whether this was intentional on Bentley’s part or merely a coincidence, it works well, and they serve as perfect bookends for the rest of the tracks on the album.
One of the caveats of being in any creative profession, such as art, design, or in this case, music, is that more often than not one must “pay their dues” first before doing something that he or she really wants to do. From the outset of the album, there is little doubt that Dierks Bentley wanted to break out of the mold and do something a little different with Up on the Ridge. While the same general sound and feel from his previous catalog offerings is still apparent throughout the entire album, Bentley is not afraid to add something else into the mix and he does it very well, walking the thin line between artistic expression and commercial viability with all of the skill of a tightrope walker. His established fans will appreciate his foray into some new territory, and casual fans can use Up on the Ridge as a stepping stone to discover another closely related genre of music.