REVIEW: Dierks Bentley – ‘The Mountain’

With 17 number one songs, 13 Grammy nominations, countless nominations from the CMA, the ACM and Billboard and over a billion streams, Dierks Bentley has emerged as one of the power-house players of modern Country music. It’s easy to see why: he writes organic, authentic songs that are anchored in the reality of modern life and people’s everyday experiences. His voice conveys an everyman type of quality and his music straddles that divide between the traditional and the modern elements of the genre. If Country music were a Venn diagram with Sam Hunt & Luke Bryan in one circle and Garth Brooks & Willie Nelson in the other, Dierks Bentley would be sitting slap bang in the middle, where the two circles overlap.

Dierks’ last album ‘Black’ was something of a risk. A smoother, poppier sound combined with some quite intense lyrics and imagery meant that the album was one of high quality but a tough listen in places. The weight of it was quite hard to digest at times compared to the more positive tones of previous album, ‘Riser’ and so it must have been hard for him to think about where to go next when the ‘Black’ cycle was finished. Luckily enough, nature was set to inspire him and thank god it did because ‘The Mountain’ is a wonderful combination of all the styles and sounds that Dierks Bentley has become famous for, from the breezy drifter sound of ‘Free and Easy’ through the Bluegrass meanderings of ‘Up on the Ridge’ to the darker Country pop of ‘Black’. This is a career defining and career spanning album of high quality music, from an artist at the very ‘summit’ of his game.

The story of ‘The Mountain’ begins in the Rocky Mountain, Colorado town of ‘Telluride’ – such an evocative place that Tim McGraw has now sung two songs about it! Bentley performed at the Bluegrass festival there in the summer of 2017 and found his muse. “I found myself there,” he says when speaking about the town. “Constantly reaching for my guitar. The town and these people just make you want to be creative.” Inspired by that feeling, Bentley returned that August, rented a house and took 6 song-writers with him. ‘The Mountain’ is the result of that explosive decampment. Inspired by and birthed in Colorado, it is a more positive statement than ‘Black’ was and you can almost feel the cold air and smell the wildflowers as you listen to its earthy, organic sounds.

Opening track, ‘Burning Man’ is possibly the stand out track. It’s a statement of intent and a little window into where Dierks is right now. A father entering middle age – his raucous years are behind him but, as he tells us in the song, he’s still a ‘little bit Rolling Stone’ despite being steadier these days. Tour partners, The Brothers Osborne contribute their considerable talents on this track too. TJ sings the second verse and the extended outro guitar has got John’s guitar hero flourishes all over it. The positivity of the ‘Riser’ era is in evidence on this track as it also is on first single, ‘Women, Amen.’ It’s tricky being a male singing about women in 2018 and even singers with good intentions, like Keith Urban with ‘Female’ can sometimes unwittingly fall on the wrong side of the line, post #MeToo but with ‘Women, Amen,’ Bentley focuses on how his wife (presumably) makes him feel and how she improves and completes him. “She gives me faith, grace, hope, strength and love without end,” he sings and when you throw in a pretty searing guitar solo too you have an undeniable winner of a track!

The potential surprise sleeper song on ‘The Mountain’ also has something of ‘Riser’ about it too. ‘One Way’ is almost buried down at track 9 towards the bottom end of the album but it could be a huge song for Bentley and his team. The simple instrumentation and upfront, urgent quality of the production on Bentley’s vocals make it feel like he is in the room singing to you. A simple, yet very effective chorus combined with the plaintive sounds of guitar and strings make this track an obvious one to send to Country radio for me.

Other tracks on ‘The Mountain’ hark back to Bentley’s earlier days. ‘Son of a Sun’ has a kind of ‘Free and Easy’ vibe to both the lyrics and the music. A song about freedom that has another simple yet evocative chorus, it also contains a terrific acoustic guitar solo, something you don’t hear a lot of these days. When Bentley sings, “get some dust on my boots, find some truth in the blue,’ it makes the listener go, ‘Yeah brother! I’m right there with you, man!’

The most obvious throwback on the album is penultimate song, ‘Travellin’ Light’. This is pure ‘Up on the Ridge’ Bluegrass gold. Brandi Carlile gets to sing the second verse in this typical ‘Movin’ On’ kind of song and the combination of the traditional instruments and the male and female vocals will thrill many of Bentley’s long-time traditional fans. Another song that carries that Telluride vibe is ‘You Can’t Bring Me Down’. It is on this track that you can channel all the positivity and simplicity that Dierks does so well that was kind of missing from ‘Black’. “I’ve learned how to let go, how to take the high road,’ he sings, coming across as part Country singer and part life coach. It’s got a sort of ‘Feel the Fire’ overtone to it that fans of early-era Bentley will really dig.

The fans of Dierks’ modern sound have still got plenty to enjoy about ‘The Mountain’ though. ‘Nothing on but the Stars’ sounds like a direct continuation of ‘I’ll Be the Moon’ from the ‘Black’ album. It has a darker, more sensual feel and the production on Bentley’s voice makes it sound much more urgent and intimate, like it was on his previous album. ‘Stranger to Myself’ finds Dierks looking at old photos of himself and laughing at his ‘big hair’. It is a love song about how finding love changed him and the simple, sing-a-long chorus carries that more intense, ‘Black’ vibe that worked so well on that album.

There are two songs on ‘The Mountain’ that see Bentley trying out a slightly new, different approach that work very well for him. ‘Goodbye in Telluride’ has a more modern production sound including the currently very trendy click-snap percussion sound. It has a slightly poppier edge and programming too as Bentley begs the girl in the song to finish their relationship anywhere but in Telluride. Definite radio / single possibilities for this one if TeamBentley want to experiment with something new.

The second song that sees Dierks experimenting is ‘My Religion’ which is a simple piano ballad. ‘My Religion’ is the sort of song that Keith Urban would swap his Dorian Gray ‘painting in the attic’ for in a heartbeat. A simple, almost child-like melody plays throughout the song and the quietness & sparsity of sound only add to the overall beauty of what could be another huge track for Bentley if his label decided to push it to the forefront.

Perhaps the most interesting song on ‘The Mountain’ comes right at the end. This album is bookended by Bentley’s two most personal songs. So, at the front end we get ‘Burning Man’, a sort of ‘this is who I am now’ kind of song whilst album closer, ‘How I’m Going Out’ is a warning shot to both fans and the industry alike that he doesn’t intend to be around forever. Bentley has no intention of being Willie Nelson: on stage at 85 years old. He sings about becoming just ‘another ghost on music row’ and goes on to say, ‘I’ll give ‘em one more song and lay this guitar down.’ A simple song augmented by some lovely pedal steel guitar, ‘How I’m Going Out’ is Bentley at his best and a real reflection of what you are going to get from this album – simple, organic, effective music backed by honest, personal and endearing lyrics performed by a musician at the height of his career.

What’s interesting, on reflection, is that the two best mainstream Country music albums that have been produced this year, Bentley’s ‘The Mountain’ and Brothers Osborne’s ‘Port Saint Joe’ have both been written and produced AWAY from Nashville. Have we reached a point in 2018 where the genre expectations and boundaries are such that for artists to really be able to create the music they want to make they have to leave Music City? Getting away from Nashville certainly seems to be firing the creative juices of some of the industry’s biggest names right now. It’s almost as if the claustrophobic and vaguely incestuous nature of the town might well be stifling creativity for some of its leading players. All I can say is thank God that Dierks Bentley left town and found his muse high up in the mountains of Colorado and thank god he didn’t have the mentality of ‘what happens in Colorado stays in Colorado’ because by coming back down from the mountain he has brought us an album of honest, earthy and joyous songs. He went out into the wilderness and came back with a beard and an amazing album!

This is a career defining record that should sweep the board at this Autumn’s CMA awards because you are going to need to search high and low to find something released this year that gives you more of a buzz than this. Dierks has scaled the peaks of creativity and emerged triumphant once again.

James Daykin
Twitter – @rockjames