Dierks Bentley: Being Banned From the Grand Ole Opry Was a Good Thing in the End
There's a song on Dierks Bentley's new Gravel & Gold album that — on the surface — appears to take a swipe at modern country music.
Hold your groans and keep reading.
"I can't really pour my heart out / On the FM radio / Cause the way I'm really feeling won't fill up the coliseum on the edge of Tupelo," he sings on "Something Real," the mandolin-fed fourth track from his just-released album.
This continues through the chorus:
"I wanna hear about a deep cut, a heartbreak / Tell me about you hard times, mistakes / Give me something that will burn I can turn into something I can feel / Yeah I want something real."
A shot from this country music veteran would be most unexpected in 2023. If he's progressing to that "Get off my lawn" stage in life and country music then that's news. But he's not, so it's not.
"I guess that song does talk about some songs that name drop, or the cliche stuff about dirt roads and girls in bars and neon signs," he says. "I’m as guilty of doing that as much as anybody else. This song kind of checks me on that."
Forgive us for projecting a very Twitter attitude upon Bentley, one of country music's most well-liked 21st century musicians. He's never won Entertainer of the Year or even Male Vocalist at the CMA or ACM Awards. Yet his ability to serve traditional country music up on a contemporary platter has been a lynchpin in a genre that's waffled between styles like a pendulum on a grandfather clock.
"It’s more of a life motto for me," he says, still talking about "Something Real." "That’s the reason why I moved to Nashville. I was trying to find that something real, that authentic thing about country music I’m enthralled with. I ended up finding that in the bluegrass community, oddly enough."
The new album drops at a time in Bentley's career when — as he tells Taste of Country Nights' host Evan Paul — he's got more behind him than in front. Changing times and new trends will never inspire a hard pivot from the singer however. He'll continue to seek out the gold in the gravel.
Taste of Country: There are quire a few very traditional country songs on Gold & Gravel. Why those songs now?
Dierks Bentley: Great question. This is my 10th album. That kind of took on a theme of its own in the process of making the album. It ended up being a collection of styles and sounds that I’ve been known for over the years and certainly traditional country music is part of that. It’s not a greatest hits album but it’s a collection of sounds and styles of the last 10 albums.
Are there more albums ahead of you or behind you?
Quite honestly, there’s a lot more behind me than there are ahead of me just because I feel like we’ve moved into such a different world, album-wise. I still listen to albums. I still have vinyl. I was texting with a guy, a friend of mine up in Kentucky. He’s like “Man, my wife and kids are gone I’m just blasting your music in the house.” I was like, “Give me your address, I’ll send you a CD.” Then you realize, what’s he gonna do with a CD?
I just got my first new car ever and it doesn’t have a CD player in it. What do you send people anymore? A link to Apple Music or Spotify? I don’t even know how it works anymore. I think this whole process is changing so rapidly I’m just so grateful to have 10 albums out there. I’ll always try to make my music in a way that’s a compilation of something. That’s just all I’m really interested in. I’m not really interested in just dropping singles.
April will mark 20 years since your debut single “What Was I Thinkin'?” Did anyone else have the chance to record that?
No, I wrote that song. I wrote that song with Brett Beavers and Deric Ruttan and I knew the second we wrote it that it was different and cool.
The story goes that this song is based on a real life story that ends with you getting banned from the Grand Ole Opry. Is that true?
It is true. I did get banned from the Grand Ole Opry, yes.
I used to work at CMT and TNN … we worked right next to the Opry. It was out at Opryland and the building was right next to the Grand Ole Opry. So I would sneak over there on Fridays and Saturdays to watch the Opry before I would go down to Lower Broadway to watch more music.
Eventually I got a letter at work saying, "Hey, we love Dierks but he can’t come to the Opry every single weekend." So I knew the only way to solve that was to become a member, which I was lucky enough to do.
Very few people can say they were banned from the Grand Ole Opry. What’s that process like?
The letter came — I wish I still had a copy of it — it was back in the letter days. This would have been 2000-ish — I’m not sure what we were doing on the email front. It probably was a proper letter that got sent to me … from Pete Fisher. I knew I’d been there probably a little too much. It kind of helped me set my sights on, "I need to get the ultimate backstage pass," which is a Grand Ole Opry membership.
I knew if I got a chance to play the Opry, the record deal, the publishing deal, the song on radio, that all would have had to have happened to play the Opry.
“Right Places” is the song on Gold & Gravel that has that same, rolling beat that’s been your signature since “What Was I Thinkin'?” How hard is it to embrace what you’re known for but still grow and explore new songs?
Yeah, when you you walk into Target you want it to feel like Target. When you walk into Walmart you want it to feel like Walmart.
Not to simplify what we do but artists know Jason Aldean for a certain thing. They know Morgan Wallen for a certain thing. I think those artists have always been really good at stretching the boundaries and going for different stuff and pushing their audience to try something new every now and then but always recognizing what your core thing is.
For me, maybe more than most I’ve tried to stretch out a little bit and do some different things, on the bluegrass front, different sounds and styles, and this album is no exception to that.
When you were coming up, whose tour had the best party?
Oh, without a doubt Chesney. Chesney probably still does. Chesney just knows how to throw a party — I used to think the show was just a front for the whole party that was happening (laughs).
We haven’t seen any tour announcements. Is one coming?
There’s one coming really soon. I think we’re gonna get the album out first and announce the tour after that. I got a great friend coming out with me on the road and we’re gonna rotate the opening acts … hitting the ground hard Memorial Day weekend. It’s gonna be a great tour.