"Riser," the latest album from Dierks Bentley, is being lauded for its collection of mid-tempo tunes and ballads that find the country singer digging emotionally deeper than ever– a direction inspired largely by the death of his father two years ago and the recent birth of his first son.
For an artist known for such energetic songs as "What Was I Thinking," "Sideways" and "5-1-5-0," the more restrained and contemplative material on "Riser" is a bit of a stylistic changeup for Bentley, who has a show on Aug. 23 at Harveys Resort Casino in Lake Tahoe.
This introspection hasn't been well received by some. For instance, his duet with Kacey Musgraves, "Bourbon in Kentucky," was the lead single released ahead of "Riser," and it's message of sadness and disappointment wasn't what radio wanted in summer 2013.
"Some radio programmers told me it literally stopped the station in its track," Bentley said. "I get that, and I appreciate their honesty. I think some guys would have gone to the wall for me and continued to play it. And I had some guys that were real honest and just said 'Man, it's a tough song for us to play. It's heavy.' But it was real. I was going through some stuff there. That was a dark song that I just gravitated toward."
Still, Bentley took a second look at the planned album and decided to cut some new tracks that were more upbeat, both musically and lyrically – including "Back Porch," "Sounds of Summer" and the recent chart-topping single from the album, "Drunk On A Plane." Bentley thinks "Riser" became a better musical statement as a result.
"It was a good record and reflective of me and what I had kind of been through," Bentley said of the original version of "Riser." "But after 'Bourbon' died and all of this time had passed by, I wasn't really in that moment. I wasn't feeling that way anymore. My son had just been born (Knox, in October 2013). I felt good.
"So the record, instead of being about certain moments in my life, really became a bigger picture of who I am over these last couple of years," he said.
That said, "Riser" still leans decidedly dark. "Here On Earth" is a song about his father's passing, in which he concludes there are no answers here on earth for the turns that life takes. On "Damn These Dreams," Bentley looks at the loneliness and regret that go with his life as a touring musician.
There are also moments of steely determination in songs like "I Hold On," a No.1 single, and the title song, which is about getting back up after being emotionally knocked to the ground. Such musical twists were exactly what Bentley was chasing.
"We could have gone in there and done four-on-the-floor kick drum and gone right for the jugular from the very beginning, like I've done in the past," he said. "I just thought there are different ways to get to the finish line, to get to the same place.
"I was searching more for groove and feel than I was for just obviousness on this record. I like the way it turned out."
Of course, taking risks is nothing new for Bentley. His rootsy 2003 self-titled debut put him on the map with the chart-topping single "What Was I Thinkin'." Bentley followed that up with two more albums that produced three more No. 1 hits. When his 2009 CD, "Feel That Fire," delivered another pair of chart-topping singles ("Sideways" and "Feel That Fire"), Bentley appeared ready to blast into the upper tier of country stars.
But, instead of sticking to his winning mainstream country formula, Bentley took a stylistic detour and released a bluegrass album, 2010's "Up on the Ridge," which ended up being a critic's favorite and still a decent success. Bentley was advised that the bluegrass record would ruin his career.
"One of the things 'Up on the Ridge' did, I really felt like I re-set my career clock when I made that record," he said. "Because from that record on, I feel like I've been making records differently, with a lot more attention to detail in the songs, looking for outside songs, trying to make really the most complete albums we can."
When Bentley returned to mainstream country with his 2013 album, "Home," he hit new heights with three No. 1 singles, while the album itself debuted at No 1 on the country album chart.
Now with another No. 1 album in "Riser," Bentley is headlining a tour of amphitheaters this summer, mixed in with some festival dates. Bentley said he'll stick mainly to his hits.
"The band loves the new songs and loves 'Riser' but right now, the set list is pretty rocking and perfect for amphitheaters," Bentley said. "I think (back) to my first country shows. That's what I loved about them, that energy, when I was out there on the grass and I was probably stealing somebody's beer, just the energy and the fun, and I definitely like to keep that up."