A teenager when he arrived in Nashville, Dierks Bentley was a veteran by the time Capitol Records signed him in 2002 — still in his early 20s, but with enough experience to take charge of his career. “I’d been writing songs for a long time,” he says. “I had been in town for three years, had no deal, and I was working with a guy who had access to a studio. I decided to make a record [Don’t Leave Me In Love], something to sell in bars, and it opened a lot of doors for me. I gave it to my drummer to learn the songs. He worked in the tape room at Sony/Tree, the biggest publishing company in town. I got a publishing deal, met my producer, Mike Ward, we made a record, and Capitol signed me.”
The independent disc, he says, was ideal preparation for his major-label project. “The first time you’re in the studio, you’re pretty intimidated. You’re learning to speak up and express opinions around people who have worked on albums for years. I learned on my first record and honed in on my sound. When it was time to record for Capitol, I knew what I was trying to achieve. I made exactly the album I wanted to make.”
That album, his self-titled major label debut, was released in 2003 and launched his career with the hit single “What Was I Thinkin’.” Bentley became a fan favorite, and while a radio-friendly song and eye-candy video certainly didn’t hurt in pushing him into the spotlight, it didn’t take long for country music to take note of him as a guitar player with deep roots in bluegrass. Modern Day Drifter, his second album, brought a Top Five single, “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do,” that was seasoned with guitar solos. Five years later, in 2010, he released Up On The Ridge, recorded with bluegrass musicians and acoustic instruments.
Riser is Bentley’s eighth album. It reached the top of the Billboard country album charts shortly after release — his fifth to do so. The first single, “I Hold On,” became his first No. 1 from the disc, certified gold and leading the way for follow-up single “Drunk On A Plane,” which took him to the top of the charts for the twelfth time in his career. Two years ago, he became a part of the Martin Guitar Ambassador program, as the company introduced the DH Dierks Bentley model, which he discussed in this interview.
When did you make the transition from electric to acoustic guitar?
I played the electric guitar until I was 17 years old and had another one of those crazy moments that changed my life. A friend of mine sat me down and played me a Hank Williams Jr. song, and I loved it because there was all this loud rock and roll guitar on a country song. Then and there, I fell in love with country music and found my voice. That took over my life. When I moved to Nashville at 19, I discovered bluegrass, and that was all about acoustic music. I’ve never looked back.
What makes Martin guitars right for you?
I always wanted a Martin guitar because, to me, that’s the pinnacle of acoustic guitars in the bluegrass world. There are so many great acoustics, but around the Nashville circles and the bluegrass circles, there’s something about a Martin. I was able to get my first one after years of saving up some money. When I play my electric guitar during the live show, it’s there to fill out the sound of some songs that work on electric, but acoustic is ground zero for me and the most important instrument I play. The first one I got was a 1971 D-18. The 1970s weren’t known to be the best years for Martin guitars, but I was able to afford one and I took it out on the road and did the George Strait tour. The next guitar I bought, for $1500, was in 1993, an HD-28, and that’s the same guitar I play now. I got it pretty much brand new, but if you look at it, people come up and ask, “Is that a pre-war?” No, it’s a ’93, but I played the hell out of it. I’ve worn a big hole beneath the pickguard from my pinky going back and forth over it, years and years of lightly rubbing against the wood. I’ve been playing that guitar for almost 14 years and I’ve started getting autographs around the side of it. I had George Strait and George Jones, but at the ACM Awards I picked up Merle Haggard and Garth Brooks. I’m a huge fan of all those heroes. When I met Merle Haggard, I told him that I’m a fan, and he said, “Dierks, I want to thank you for playing on my record. I love the track that you did.” Luke Bryan and I did a recording of “Pancho and Lefty,” and he knew about it. Those autographs are on the top, just where I can see them. I would never deface the front of the guitar, just on the wood facing up toward me. I look down and see some of those heroes, but the crowd can’t. But I can show it to them, which at some point I usually do!
How did you design your signature Martin?
As far as the feel goes, Del McCoury is one of my favorite rhythm bluegrass players and I loved the way his guitar felt in my hands, the big neck, the high action, and a lot of things about his guitar, so I modeled mine after that and added some flair to make it feel like my own. At the time, my song “Home” was out, which is a very patriotic song, and I got some red, white, and blue stitching on the bracing on the outside and also gave it a little bit of a Buck Owens shout out, because I have a red, white, and blue Buck Owens guitar. I love Buck. There are some details in the wood, the way it feels in my hands, the old-school kind of tuning pegs, and the last touch is I’m from Phoenix and my album is called Riser, so there’s a phoenix image on the 12th fret. It’s a great-sounding guitar. I gave one to my friend Jon Randall, who’s an incredible acoustic player, and it sounds so good in his hands.
You tracked live in the studio. How were you miked?
My Martin was only used on a couple of songs, with a mic at the soundhole and a mic toward the fretboard. Bryan Sutton — I just sit and watch what he does. He knows I’m a Martin freak. He’ll pull out a Gibson here and there too, but he has some pre-war stuff that’s just unbelievable. He’ll reach in his pocket and pull out fifty picks, all various shapes, sizes, and colors, and he’ll say, “I think this song needs this kind of pick.” I learn so much just watching him play. I don’t have the skills or the gear to do it that way, so I will play on stuff, but a lot of what you hear on my record is Bryan Sutton.
What do you use onstage?
I am not a collector. I’ve got the same truck that I moved to town in. I’m sitting in it right now. It’s got 204,299 miles on it. I’ll put every mile on this truck. When I get a good guitar, I’m not looking for a bunch of other ones. I have a great 1959 D-18, it’s a real woody-sounding guitar; it’s not boomy like a 28, just real even tones throughout. It sounds almost like a cardboard box at times, in a good way. It records great because it’s got a consistent sound. I have my signature model on the stage, I have a Golden Era D-18 as well and it gets played on the song “Home.” I have a heavier set of strings on it so that I can tune it way down. The majority of the time, my 1993 herringbone D-28 is used the most. All of those guitars, once you plug them in, you’re losing a lot and it’s unfortunate. I still play gigs at the Station Inn here in town and it’s fun to take a guitar unplugged, shove it up to a microphone and get that natural tone.
Any special tunings?
For “Home,” it’s F-sharp, B-sharp, F-sharp, B-sharp, G-sharp, C-sharp. You fret two strings and play the whole guitar open. It almost sounds like a piano, because you’re hitting two strings and four of them are ringing wide open and droning. It’s like two guitars in one. I tune down a lot. My poor crew! The reason I have three guitars is because this song’s a half step down, that song’s a full step down, this song the guitar’s tuned down a step and a half and needs bigger strings, but no real funky tunings other than the one on “Home,” and that’s one I learned from Bryan Sutton, of course.
How did you develop your picking style? You use a pick. Which one?
I use a few tortoise shell replica Dunlops. For me, rhythm bluegrass is my strumming pattern. Tony Rice’s rhythm playing is unbelievable, obviously Del McCoury, Jimmy Martin. I do some crosspicking here and there, and a little bit of fingerpicking on some stuff.
You had your first hit with “What Was I Thinkin’” and a female fan base wearing white tank tops to your concerts. Now you’re recognized as a country and bluegrass picker with serious chops. When did people finally begin to realize what you had going on? Was “Lot Of Leavin’ Left To Do” the breakthrough for showcasing your musicianship?
That song is pretty cool, and I think we made a statement with it by having a lot of steel guitar and electric guitar, featuring those instruments, and having long solos. There aren’t too many country songs with that kind of soloing going on as much these days, I guess. But I think the biggest breakthrough was when I made Up On the Ridge, which Jon Randall produced and Gary Paczosa engineered.