One of the most intriguing releases of the year is here in big, bold, brawny & brainless technicolour. Dierks Bentley’s side project, The Hot Country Knights, who started out as a bit of a laugh has morphed into something much more serious. Yes, this is a ‘joke’ project, and when I say joke I mean parody, in the same way that Spinal Tap and Steel Panther successfully parodied rock and heavy metal. The elephant in the studio of Country music, however, must surely be the question of whether the fan base and consumers of Country music are willing to allow themselves to be parodied? Do the hard-working, god-fearing residents of the rural South have enough of a sense of humour to laugh at themselves? I’m not sure – I hope they do because ‘The K is Silent’ is a superb album, walking the very delicate fine-line between parody, piss-take and (musical) proficiency with both skill and aplomb.
The Knights make a big deal out of their supposed 90’s roots in the blurb that comes with the album. ‘We were out on the road singing a lot of other people’s hits and we called them Greatest Hits because by us singing them it actually made them great,’ says Bentley’s alter-ego Doug Douglason. ‘It’s the best stuff to come out of Nashville from a man band in several decades,’ he states, unapologetically targeting that demographic of fan who hasn’t bought a CD since 1999 and who wouldn’t know one end of a streaming platform from another. With a ‘comedy’ album you can go either one of two ways – make every song a Monty Python-esque joke and aim for laughs only or you can go the Spinal Tap route and try and produce something that is both a parody of the genre whilst adding to the greater part of it – Hot Country Knights are definitely trying for the latter.
The opening two songs, ‘Hot Country Knights’ and ‘Pick Her Up’ could have been lifted from any number of albums released in that sweet spot of the mid-to-late 90’s. Trace Adkins, Travis Tritt who, unsurprisingly, features on the latter track, Dwight Yoakam, Joe Diffie, David Lee Murphy et al, the list is endless. These are the touchstone references for the loud, bombastic sound of the Hot Country Knights. What must be stated, here upfront, is that musically, this band is on fire!! Tight, slick and sounding absolutely great. ‘Hot Country Knights’, the song, is all honky-tonk pianos and electric guitar. The lyrics, however, reveal a silly sense of humour that people will either love or hate. ‘To measure how much fun we’re having,’ Douglason sings at one point, ‘you would need a big ruler’. ‘Pick Her Up’, meanwhile is straight down the middle serious, in the same way that Midland are. Retro-leaning yet serious. It’s a fiddle driven homage rather than a ‘comedy’ song and it rocks out big time! A catchy, infectious nod to the ‘glory days’ of the 90’s and its line dancing, buckle and boot wearing big haired doyens. Way more Midland than Steel Panther and musically awesome!
Other songs on ‘The K is Silent’ also lean more towards a Midland-style homage rather than a Spinal Tap-esque piss-take. ‘Kings of Neon’ sees the band rolling into town on the back of a riff that ACDC would be proud of. The fiddle and piano kick in and take the song off in a more honky-tonk direction and references to Aviators, Wranglers, bars and chicks ground it firmly in the 90’s but ‘…Neon’ is a serious attempt at a song from another time. Similarly, ‘Wrangler Danger’, a song glorifying all the ‘Country music Heather Locklears’ (look her up kids) is another attempt at making some serious honky-tonk. Yes, it is essentially a song all about women’s asses in tight jeans but is it a ‘comedy’ song? That’s up to you to decide.
Where ‘The K is Silent’ veers away from homage and into parody is probably where it works best. ‘Asphalt’ is the first ‘funny’ song on the album. Its acoustic beginnings might well share a heritage with Poison’s ‘Every Rose Has its Thorn’ but it soon morphs into a Country ballad reminiscent of ‘Black’ era Dierks Bentley. The song is jam-packed with double-entendres about backsides but the rich instrumentation and Bentley’s soaring vocals place this one firmly in ‘arena-sized, lighters-on’ ballad mode. It’s a great song in its own right, but my god, it’s clever and funny at the same time.
You want more clever and funny? I give you ‘You Make It Hard’, the duet with 90’s legend Terri Clark. More double-entendres as the song builds slowly to its ‘climax’ in the chorus on this classic ‘back-and-forth / male-female, call and response ballad as Douglason declares, ‘Every inch of me is so into you’. ‘Mull it Over’, meanwhile, has a gentler, George Strait-esque vibe. It’s a heartbreak song, with a difference. Read the title again and you’ll get it. ‘If you leave me now, ‘Douglason sings at one point, ‘You’ll never know all the different lengths I’ll go.’ Has there ever been a break-up song ever written before that is a metaphor for hairstyles, lengths and fashions? I think not.
The best two songs on ‘The K is Silent’ are the two funniest. But again, I must stress, they walk a fine line between being simply ‘comedy’ and something that adds to the wider body of Country music. ‘Then it Rained’ is, simply, a parody of ‘The Thunder Rolls’, right down to the timing, phrasing and instrumentation in the song. It reminds me a little of the infamous ‘Parked out by the Lake’ parody that ‘Dean Summerwind’ released back in 2018. It skilfully lampoons the genre and one of the most famous songs ever to be released within the genre without coming across as harsh or mean-spirited. You know damn well that Garth Brooks is going to love this song because the song has been made from a place of love.
Album closer, ‘The USA Begins With US’ is pure comedy, from beginning to end. A faux-live song, Douglason speaks to the crowd from the stage with spectacular Trump-like clumsiness. “We don’t see colours,” he says at one point, “we only see red, white and blue.” After a series of false starts, the song breaks out into a huge, anthemic, gang-vocal driven number about America. I love it, it makes me laugh and it makes me want to sing along too – something that is a hallmark of all great comedy or parody albums.
However, there could be a philosophical discussion to be had about just who Bentley & co are making fun of on this song and on the wider album in general. A huge part of the traditional Country music fan base is built around people who share a commonality of thought with people like Donald Trump. People who would agree with Douglason’s statement that ‘freedom is not free, it’s expensive’ without seeing the irony of what he is trying to say. Could this provoke a kickback from certain sections of the media or from Country fans? I hope not, after all, heavy metal fans took Spinal Tap and Steel Panther to their hearts in a big way, so let’s hope that Country music fans have a similarly strong sense of humour.
‘The K is Silent’ is a triumph. Part Midland-style homage, part Spinal Tap-esque comedy. There is nothing mean-spirited or spiteful about what Dierks Bentley and his very capable band-mates have produced here under the name of the Hot Country Knights. Some songs will make you want to dance, some will make you want to sing and some will make you howl with laughter. Bentley is on top form as Doug Douglason and it must be a nice respite for him to try on an alter-ego for a while as an escape from his ‘day job’. Everything the Knights do on this album is done from a place of love, which makes the songs all the more believable and grounds them in a reality that you can accept.
Turn it on, turn it up and turn back time!