Throughout 2020, I will be writing, at length, about my favorite albums of the past decade. This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
The more I think about it, the more it makes sense that Dierks Bentley released a parody album slyly lampooning mainstream country music’s worst elements this year.
Granted, he’s never been as outspoken as certain contemporaries, but if anything, it just shows that he puts his money where his mouth is in other ways. He included a bluegrass song on each of his first few albums and made a song with a Waylon Jennings-esque groove popular in 2005; that’s pretty cool. Of course, he’s also pragmatic and knows how far he’s able to push his limits in Nashville, which has worked for and against him in certain aspects. Black may have been somewhat of a self-described concept album, but “Somewhere On A Beach” is a Bentley tune I’d like to eventually forget.
Still, there’s a sense of balance to Bentley’s creative decisions, where for every dumb single that gets released to radio, he’s going to use that latitude to dig deeper for something more inspiring. And I don’t think it’s unfair to say he hit an artistic burnout period in 2009 during the Feel That Fire era, where the hits came, but felt largely uninspired and failed to distinguish Bentley from his contemporaries. “I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes” was like a literal retread of “Come A Little Closer,” and “Sideways” … well, it speaks for itself.
Instead of continuing on with what worked, though, Bentley had the guts that next year to do the unthinkable – record a bluegrass-inspired project as a main studio album, with songs intended for radio. As such, while I do have quite a fondness for Up On The Ridge, it’s one of few projects where I’ve weighed a different sort of consideration for this feature: scope and impact.
In reality, Up On The Ridge did what most great country albums do: bridge the gap between past and present. And that’s not even referring to the Bob Dylan and U2 covers – I’m talking about exposing the Punch Brothers and Del McCoury to a mainstream audience.
Which, of course, leads to the easy criticism that it’s less a Bentley-focused project and more just a collaborative effort that can feel slightly inconsistent at points; if you’re going to have Kris Kristofferson on his own “Bottom of the Bottle,” have him do more than make a simple cameo appearance.
But here’s where I’d largely challenge that assertion: for one, the originals here are among Bentley’s best work, especially “Draw Me A Map” and “Down In The Mine.” And two, while Bentley doesn’t possess the high tenor usually associated with bluegrass, his lower, gruffer tone forces him to adapt the material to better suit him, which means we get some particularly dark, ominous moments like the excellent title rack or hear a great, somber display of emotion in “Down In The Mine.”
Which is to say it’s not just a bluegrass-inspired project for Bentley; it’s a relatively dark listen, too. I’ve always found that what Bentley lacks in pure technical ability, he makes up for in charm, presentation and hangdog charisma; hence why the storytelling and subsequent presentation is still a key element that’s marked his best work elsewhere. I’ve always been surprised that for how basically straightforward “Draw Me A Map” really is, Bentley is doing the heavy lifting to really sell it. And I love how he never repeats the hook one final time, but instead just lets the line linger and the instrumentals fade out the track; it’s a subtle detail, but a great one.
Of course, it’s not perfect. As cool as the collaboration is, “Bad Angel” doesn’t really feel as consistent when it’s split between Bentley, Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson. Then again, I’m one of few who thinks the “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” cover works, if only because of the interplay between Bentley’s huskier tone and Del McCoury’s high tenor on the hook. And even if “Fiddlin’ Around” and “Love Grows Wild” are two of the more cutesier choices here, there’s something about the homespun presentation that wins me over regardless. Things might have even went for better for this album at radio if either of them had been a single, but it’s obviously a moot point now.
At any rate, it was the creative recharge Bentley needed that, while not his biggest commercial success, did separate him from his mainstream contemporaries. And I’d argue that will pay off better for him somewhere down the line anyway.