Dierks Bentley Q&A: How He Balances Road Trips and Rug Rats

Chris Willman
Our Country

For a lot of country fans, it won’t just be a crazy summer in 2014 but a “5-1-5-0” summer, thanks to Dierks Bentley presiding over his first true headlining tour after being part of countless package deals during his first decade in the majors. And Bentley’s new collection, "Riser," which just debuted at No. 1 on the country albums chart, has a few tailgating-suitable anthems that’ll help get everyone in the mood for "What Was I Thinking" and "Tip It On Back."

At the same time, "Riser" also has the most contemplative and personal moments we’ve heard on any of his seven albums to date, as discussed in the first part of our two-pronged interview with Bentley. In this second part, we talk to him about maintaining the tricky balance of being both a road dog and a family cat.

YAHOO MUSIC: Last summer you toured with Miranda Lambert. This summer, you’ll be the headlining a tour in sizable venues for the first time. What took that long?

BENTLEY: If you open my record up, I thank Miranda individually, because that was the most fun tour I’ve ever been on. And it really was a huge, cathartic experience between two big moments of my life, my dad dying and my son being born. We had a chance to go out there and sing every night and party with the crowd, and that was really good for me.

We tried to headline before. I remember having lunch on the Kenny Chesney tour with Kenny, and my girlfriend — who’s now my wife — was there. Kenny was eating and I said “Yeah, we’re gonna go out and headline next year,” and he stopped, mid-food, and just looked up at me and his eyes went up. He said, “Goood” [skeptically]. My wife and I still talk about that moment, because we did go out in 2006 and 2007 and 2008, playing places that held 20,000 people, and sometimes we were playing for 2,500. I had to make some changes at some point. “What are we doing?” [Laughs] So we had to retreat and fall back and find a different way to get there. I took the long way around.

But here we are in 2014, finally doing our first real big headlining tour, and great bands supporting us: Chris Young, a great traditional singer that has a lot of energy in his live show; Jon Pardi, whose new record I love — I can’t get past that "Write You a Song,” a honky-tonk stomper; and Chase Rice, a guy who’s out there on the underground just making it happen. It’ll be a lot of fun to have a chance to be the head regulator to that group of guys. I think you have to wait this long to do it. I’m already thinking about the tailgating scene, the music being played between acts, the B-stages, and throwing everything we have at it. It’s like, f--- it, let’s go huge. There’s gonna be a lot of other country bands coming through this amphitheater.

I feel really lucky I get to be in several different worlds. I get to be part of the bluegrass world; I just played the Station Inn [a tiny club in Nashville] with some of those bluegrass guys and am doing it again April 1. And I still get a chance to run around and act like an idiot and swim in the deep waters of commercial country music. I’m not gonna take that for granted this summer. At different times in my life, I’ve wanted different things. I loved when we did the bluegrass with Up on the Ridge, but right now I like playing for big crowds and having all the toys and going for it.

How do you balance the maturity of so many of the songs on the new album, like the ones about your dad dying or leaving your kids behind when you’re on the road, with the party atmosphere of the shows?

The cool thing about where I am in my life is that I still can relate to being this kid who’s 19 years old and all he wants to do is put a six-inch lift kit on his truck. I mean, I still drive that truck. I know what it’s like to be that kid. But now I can relate to you and other people that have lost a parent, or people that have kids and the craziness of that. One of the cool things about being a singer in a band is I get to have these male group therapy sessions every morning on the bus. I’m an “artist” or whatever. But I run my gig like we are a band, and we all ride in one bus together and all ride in bunks and I have this fellowship with them that is unbelievable.

And one thing that’s great about this record is opening the door to grief. When you’re honest on a record and expose that, people come to you and tell you things, and it opens the door for real conversation. At my age, I don’t really want to have any conversations other than real conversations. I can go to a party and run into a friend I haven’t seen for years, but if we don’t have some sort of birth or death thing to kind of go towards, I’m not gonna sit there and rehash the old days.

I’m gonna write a song one day called “The Good Old Days are Good Because They’re Gone.” I don’t miss the good old days! I mean, there were moments I liked, but there were a lot of insecurities and worries and fears, and just a lot of BS that I don’t care to rehash. I like to live in the now, whether it’s talking about something sad or talking about something happy. That’s what country music records to me are about. It’s a conversation the singer’s having with you. And with this album, I’ve been able to have a deeper conversation, because life has delivered more ups and downs. It’s kicked me around a little bit, in good ways and bad ways. Bad ways, my dad passing away; and good ways, I have a circus at home. It’s a lot of craziness there.

Most of the new album was written and recoded before your son was born. But you do have the song “Damn These Dreams,” about leaving your kids behind to hit the road.

It just gets worse with each month. As the kids get a little bit older, they start to process what’s happening. Even today, coming down here, I’m putting on my work boots, and my daughter said, “Hey, are you going to work?” “Yeah.” “Are you gonna be home tonight, or…” “No, I’ll be home tonight.” She’s very conscious of what suitcase I’m puling out and what clothes I’m picking out. That tension is growing.

But at the same time, my love of music is growing, too. I’m such a fan of country music that any off time I have, all I want to do is get better at the banjo try to learn the fiddle. My daughter calls it the violin. I told her it’s the fiddle! She calls it the spittle, because she can’t say F’s. I just love the instruments and love the music. I’m still eaten up with it. That continues to grow, and the love for my family continues to grow. Just being a competitive person, I want to win at the country music game still. And I still want to be the best dad and husband I can be. So it makes for a lot of tension.

And that song, I almost didn’t put it on the record. At the time, it was like, there’s no way I’m putting this on the record. It’s too personal and unrelatable. But I find people can relate to it because anyone that travels for work could probably relate to that song. Or anyone who just works and has to leave the house. It sucks! But it’s what happens.

You just premiered a 45-minute film on CMT, “Dierks Bentley: Riser,” which fans will be able to buy soon. It even goes into the delivery room with you and your wife. How do you feel about how it came out?

Oh, man. I almost had to prop my eyes open with toothpicks to get through the whole thing. I watched it with a bunch of fans and was like, “Gosh, why did we make this?” But then I met a guy whose dad had passed away and was so moved by it. If there were ever a moment to have something that documents the tension between those two worlds [home and work], now would be the time. So I got a chance to make this really great home video, and the only caveat is that I have to share it with everybody

I don’t seek attention at all. I love it on stage. I go up there and I want everyone’s attention. I like looking people in the eye. I can tell when someone’s leaving because the set list is not right. But the second I’m off-stage, man, I just love being a regular dude. I can go into Kroger dressed like an idiot, because I’m doing something with my girls and they painted my nails, or I’m wearing Uggs and shorts. Nobody knows who the f--- I am! It’s awesome. The biggest tradeoff in the world is not being able to go somewhere because everyone recognizes you. I never in my worst nightmare want that. At the same time, I still want to win in the country music game and have big crowds and play for big people and have my songs be huge hits. So there’s a tradeoff between exposing yourself for musical gains but also losing some of your privacy. It’s not privacy, though; it’s just the ability to be free and untethered.

My wife drives a Prius and I drive a truck, and there’s times I’ll pull up somewhere in the Prius and I’m like, I’m gonna get laughed at if someone saw me jumping out of this thing right now! But no one knows who I am, and I slide into the liquor store and grab a bottle of wine and slide on out. I don’t want to say I pride myself on it, but that’s probably what I love most about my life.