“Anything looks big when you face it in totality,” says singer-songwriter Dierks Bentley. “It’s like ‘How am I ever going to solve this problem? How am I ever gonna get to the top?’ But if you take it one step at a time and just keep grinding away, you can do it.”
He’s talking about the spirit behind his ninth studio album, The Mountain, and after 15 years in country music, the mountains Bentley has climbed could form a range of their own.
To date, the Arizona native has scored 17 Number Ones like “What Was I Thinkin’,” “I Hold On” and “Black” and 13 Grammy nominations – including at least one stemming from each of his last six albums. He’s built a reputation as both a dedicated family man and a forever-young drifter, put in millions of miles on headlining tours and taken the fearless stylistic detours of a truly authentic artist.
With The Mountain, Bentley continues that journey, taking more chances and pulling inspiration from the twisted peaks surrounding a tiny town in Colorado – as well as the uphill battles his fans face every day. Unified by themes of positivity and presence, 13 new tracks range in style from textured rock to acoustic folk, feeling both rooted and expansive at the same time. And in the end, Bentley reaches a new creative high.
The Mountain’s story begins in the Rocky Mountain resort town of Telluride, Colorado, which every summer plays host to a celebrated bluegrass festival. Owing to his well-documented love of the genre, Bentley has attended the festival multiple times over the years, always making a point to slow down and tune back in to the world around him. But after performing on the festival’s main stage in 2017, the idyllic surroundings became more than a much-needed getaway.
“I found myself there, constantly reaching for my guitar,” he says. “It was like a gravitational pull. That town and those people just make you want to be creative, I couldn’t describe it. I was like ‘How do I tell everyone in Nashville this is what I want to write about?’ I realized I couldn’t bring it back, so I had to take everyone out there.”
Returning that August with six of his most trusted songwriting collaborators, Bentley and his fellow ‘Telluwriters’ all bunked up in a small house together, explored the area, and dug deep into the peaceful, reflective vibes he was feeling. They had five days to work with and were hoping to write eight songs…but ended up with nearly twice that number, forming the core of the record.
Bentley’s no stranger to following his muse. In 2010, with four hit-filled albums already under his belt, the country star famously recorded a bluegrass project titled Up on the Ridge, stepping back from a red-hot career to focus on music that fed his soul. The risky decision was hailed by critics and fans alike, and Bentley now thinks of it as a “hinge point,” saying “It was the start of a second career really, and all the success I’ve had stems from that record.”
Each album since (Home, Riser and Black) has built upon the Up on the Ridge ethos, with Bentley holding his artistic ground and still scoring hits – but The Mountain reaches further. He describes it as a sonic mix of Up on the Ridge’s bluegrass soul and the modern-rock polish of Black.
“For me it’s the best of both worlds, and it feels like something new,” he says. “It’s powerful but also happy, with acoustic sensibility mixed in with the big sounds I like to have for the road.”
Locking in on that sound with a small group of musicians and the producers of those albums – Jon Randall Stewart, Ross Copperman and Arturo Buenahora Jr respectively – Bentley returned to Telluride and a tucked-away hideout called Studio in the Clouds last November. Perched high on a mesa, its tracking room overlooking the endless Rocky Mountain landscape, The Mountain rose up in earnest.
Featuring Bentley’s 2018 tour partners Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man” opens the album on a fiery-but-reflective note, fusing propulsive beats with booming vocals and guitars to describe the star – now a 42-year-old father of three – as a restless spirit with his feet firmly on the ground.
The blues-rock groove of the title track places Bentley in the role of a musical sherpa, escorting listeners up a winding path that leads past the clouds of doubt and into the clear-blue sky beyond. “It was only a mountain / Nothin’ but a big old rock,” he sings. Likewise, “Living” embraces life’s ebb and flow with a crisp, contemporary-country sound, and “Can’t Bring Me Down” revisits Up on the Ridge, feeling like an upbeat summer singalong as bluegrass hero Sam Bush chops away on his legendary mandolin.
The desert-anthem vibe behind “Son of the Sun” speaks to Bentley’s upbringing outside Phoenix, while the project’s first single, “Woman, Amen,” shows the man he’s become. Written by Bentley with Copperman and Josh Kear, the foot stomping rocker builds and swells with gratitude for Bentley’s wife, Cassidy, and all the love she’s brought into his life.
“Goodbye in Telluride” begins the trek down The Mountain’s second half, putting a lighthearted spin on a breakup – much like “Drunk On a Plane” and “Somewhere On a Beach” did before. “Religion” takes a spiritual look at romantic devotion, “One Way” burns with Texas-country passion, “Nothing On but the Stars” captures the foreboding feel of a relationship’s final hours, and the wounded roots pop of “Stranger to Myself” rings with steel guitar and harmony vocals.
Meanwhile, “Traveling Light” follows in the footsteps of Black’s “Different for Girls,” a Number One hit which introduced country fans to rocker Elle King. Featuring slippery dobro from Jerry Douglas and the joyfully unrestrained vocals of Americana favorite Brandi Carlile, the acoustic-folk gem is all about letting go of things that weigh us down.
Last but not least, “Going Out” finishes the album with a gracious, pure-country meditation on how Bentley would like his time in the spotlight to end – sounding content but far from ready to quit.
“These are songs I’d play for somebody to say ‘This is who I am right now, as an artist and as a man. It’s how I want to live my life,’” he explains.
Indeed, Bentley admits that – once again – he made an album for himself. After putting one foot in front of the other and working his way up his own personal mountaintop for so long, it was time to stop and take a look around. And the satisfaction he felt made the whole climb worth it.
“I wanted to make a great album…and to do that, you have to be willing to fail,” he says. “I had a tiny seed of an idea and we fully went for it. I couldn’t be more proud of the music or the friends that helped me create The Mountain.”