Dierks Bentley: ‘I don’t want to talk about fluff’

LOS ANGELES-On his seventh studio album, “Riser,”  out today, 11-time Grammy nominee Dierks Bentley finds himself examining the circle of life as he deals with the death of his father followed by the joy of the birth of his third child and first son. Though the album has plenty of upbeat tracks, it's the deeper cuts, like current Top 10 single, “I Hold On,” the dark “Bourbon In Kentucky,” and “Here on Earth” that stick to your ribs. A 40-minute documentary, “Dierks Bentley: Riser”  follows the country star's journey as he makes the album. Bentley screened the doc here Feb. 20 and HitFix spent some time with him afterward. CMT produced a 30-minute special that features much of the documentary's footage, while a deal for the full documentary to bring it to a TV outlet, such as Netflix or Hulu is being worked on.

Bentley filmed an episode of CMT's “Crossroads” with OneRepublic, which will debut in mid-March.

What do you want fans to learn about you from watching this film?

It”s not necessarily about the fans learning about me. I hope they watch this and feel a sense of connection to their life. I hope it just moves them. When you”re honest with the music and you”re honest with a documentary like this and you let people come in and see behind the scenes, you open yourself up to great conversations. The older I get all I want to do is have real conversations and I don”t want to talk about fluff.

I want to be like, “Let”s dig in and let”s get up to our elbows in some dirty life messiness.”  And though I”ve been living off of singing songs about good times and parties and all that stuff, this time in my life feels so rich with good stuff and the bad stuff. It”s just so real. I feel like my job on the record and on the documentary was just to find a way to get it down on tape and onto videotape. I guess what I want my fans to get out of it is the relatability to me.

It”s about connecting with them.

Having that connection with them and not just being off spinning into outer space of wealth and tour buses. This is where I am right now. My dad”s passed away. I have kids. I”m really comfortable in the skin I”m in and singing about those particular things and talking about those things, more so than I have been in the past. Because going from being a crazy single guy…it”s an adjustment. But I”ve realized that you can still be all that and still I get a chance to go out there and be the kid who was 17 years old and was consumed with putting a lift kit on my pickup truck. I can still relate to that.

You really capture the conflict between parenthood and career on “Damn These Dreams.”  It”s very touching, where as it could have come off as,”Who wants to feel sorry for this dude?”

Totally. Totally…It scared the crap out of me…I almost didn”t put the song on the record and I gave my band members a couple songs and that was on there and they all went back and said, “This song is so you.” And my biggest concern was it”s about me [but] I find the more personal I write, the more universal it”s sometimes understood. So that”s the way that song is.

How concerned were you when the album”s first single, “Bourbon In Kentucky,” didn”t do well? 

Bombed. Bombed…My whole career shifted when I pulled the plug on the country music machine for a little bit and did [2010″s bluegrass album] Up on the Ridge. That was me just saying, “I”ve got to walk away and get creative,” and then when I come back from that, that record didn”t do huge numbers and it wasn”t a big hit on the radio but my fans loved it.

That just kind of taught me that when I first got into this thing I was failing all the time but I was getting back up. Then you get a record deal and it”s like you can play it too safe and so the bluegrass record was me playing it as unsafe as possible and from there forward it”s like, “Yeah. Let”s just go for things whether they”re going to work or not,” and “Bourbon,” I honestly knew was going to be really hard. We said, “This is summertime and we”re going to go out there playing this song and it”s just so dark.”

But hey, we tried it and I hate that it didn”t work out for the songwriters that wrote it. I don”t feel like we retreated with “I Hold On.” I”ve been playing it all year long on the Miranda [Lambert] tour before the record was even finished and it”s probably the most important song to me on the record. It”s so personal. It”s about my truck. It”s about my dad. It”s about my guitar. It”s about my wife. It”s about our country. It”s crazy personal, so the fact that it”s a hit, that it works, it looks easy now. It”s a top 10 song. It”s doing great. But it was a big question mark whether even that that would work.

There”s no party anthem on here like “Sideways,” “5150”  or “Am I The Only One.” Are you done with those kinds of songs?

Let”s say the finish line is on those types of songs…that party song. Let”s say there”s this place you want to get to. I just think this record is like, “Let”s find a different way to get there,” because I”ve gotten there the most direct route. I”ve gotten there like A to B. Okay. Let”s still get to B from A but let”s find a little different [way] like “Pretty Girls Drinking Tall Boys” The title makes you think it”s going to be one thing but it”s more just like kind of a stoner groove for lack of a better word but it still gets there. It still reaches that place. It just gets there in maybe a cooler way.

In the documentary, Miranda talks about how much she loves that song. Is she mad she didn”t get to record it?

Blake [Shelton] is friends with the guys I wrote that with, Jon Randall and Jessi Alexander. Jessi”s had a bunch of Blake hits and I heard Blake”s like, “If Dierks doesn”t make that single I”m going to make it so you”d better tell him to make that single.” I”ve been fighting for that song since it came out. I love it.

“Here On Earth” does something not a lot of country songs do, which is question your faith.

Questioning your beliefs. Questioning your faith.

It”s not only about not being able to understand losing your dad, but also a child after the Sandy Hook school shootings.

It”s one thing to lose your parents. That”s a natural progression. You can relate to anybody on that. It”s going to happen to everyone and it”s a real stinker. It”s awful, but that”s normal. Losing a child is not normal and that”s kind of where that song really came from…it”s like, “Okay so you”re a believer, but it”s easy to be in normal times. But what about extreme situations like that?” And it really tests your faith and the song has no resolution. All it”s saying is, “All I know for fact is the answers aren”t here in this world.”

You”re getting ready to do your first headline tour 10 years after your first album came out.

God, I”m so excited. We started trying to headline in 2006 and we were playing places that hold 20,000 people and we had a fan base of about 2,500 people at the time. So I”m playing these huge arenas and they”re draped and curtained and I would sing my heart out and die on that stage. I would kill every night. I tried to anyway. And the review the next day would be like, “Oh…Dierks Bentley…poor guy. He played Ohio like he was playing to a sold out arena. Unfortunately it was not that…” We did that for like three years, just could not get it through our heads, so I walked away from it…So instead of the obvious way to get there it was like, “Okay…We”re going back around this way and with the right records maybe we”ll get a chance to have lightning strike our kite one more time.” And it did. Here it is…2014 and we”re headlining amphitheaters and I”m so excited.

What”s the biggest thing you”ve learned from opening for other people?

I think the biggest thing I learned would still be from Kenny Chesney. He was just so kind and gracious to all the opening acts and it passes down. He gave me a boat at the end of the tour and then when Miranda opened for me, I gave her a pistol. And then Miranda this year gave me an ATV. And that all kind of started with Kenny.

So that means your opening acts will get gifts.

I”m already geeking about this stuff. My tour doesn”t start until May and I”m already thinking about what music is going to be playing when the crowd walks in the venue? How can we make each show feel local? What songs can I do with the guys on the tour? What gifts am I going to give them when the tour starts?