Growing up in Phoenix, a young Dierks Bentley was exposed to country music via an unusual route. While he would listen to George Strait with his dad while riding around in the elder Bentley’s truck, it ultimately wasn’t country radio that planted the seed in the younger Bentley’s head that he wanted to be a country singer.
It was, according to Bentley, the TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard,” with its country bumpkin antiheroes, outrageous ’69 Dodge Challenger car jumps, and most importantly, the Waylon Jennings-sung theme song, “Good Ol’ Boys,” that pricked up the impressionable lad’s ears.
I spoke with Dierks Bentley in 2004 — when he professed his love for all things “Dukes of Hazzard” — while he was just another new artist with a debut album trying to navigate his way through the tough country music business.
But even then it seemed Bentley was different.
First, 11 of the 13 songs on his self-titled debut — which produced two top 5 country hits in the rousing “What Was I Thinkin’ ” and “How Am I Doin’?” — were co-written by Bentley. That’s remarkable for a new artist in contemporary country music, a genre that notoriously separates singers from Nashville’s songwriters, who seemingly sit in cubicles and crank out hits for cookiecutter artists.
Second was Dierks Bentley’s look, specifically the noticeably absent cowboy hat, which are seemingly issued to young singers upon arrival in Nashville, as if the accoutrement automatically stamps them as a country artist. Bentley, like the music on his debut disc, was then, and is now, a no-frills guy, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and black boots, letting his blond curls spill wildly about his head. Unlike most new artists alighting from Nashville, Bentley didn’t look country, but he sounded more country than the country-pop lightweights in gussied-up Western shirts.
And last, when I spoke to Bentley he was on tour with traditional country music torchbearer George Strait, the undisputed king of country music who chooses his own opening acts. Needless to say, if George Strait likes you, you’ve got to be pretty darn good.
And Bentley has proved to be just that. His 2005 followup disc, “Modern Day Drifter,” yielded the No.1 hits “Come a Little Closer” and “Settle for a Slowdown” and the top 5 Waylon-esque outlaw stomp of “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do.” Again, Bentley co-wrote the bulk of the material on the album, which bridged the gap between mainstream country and altcountry (Bentley is one of the few artists to be featured in the anti-Nashville, alt-country magazine No Depression).
With the arrival of his third disc, “Long Trip Alone,” Bentley is set to become a veritable superstar.
Not only is this disc his best, it is one of the best country albums of the year, a blend of rocking country (the first single, “Every Mile a Memory,” the anthemic “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go),” the vaguely Celtic “Can’t Live it Down” and the pounding outlaw backbeat of “That Don’t Make it Easy Loving Me”), bluegrass (“Prodigal Son’s Prayer), honky-tonk (“Band of Brothers”) and ballads (the title cut, the beautiful “Soon as You Can,” and “The Heaven I’m Headed To”).
There isn’t a bad cut on the 11-song disc, and Bentley had a hand in the writing of each one. More than that, he’s managed to pull off the nearly impossible — making an album that will appeal to fans of hard country, alt-country, mainstream country and even to music listeners who don’t much like country music at all.
It’s that good.
“The Dukes of Hazzard” hasn’t inspired much true art in the nearly 30 years since it debuted (unless you count the recent film adaptation, but then again, true art it is not), but if it inspired Bentley — who should now take his rightful place at the head of the country class to sit next to Strait and Alan Jackson — to become a singer/ songwriter, it has more than redeemed itself in the annals of kitsch pop culture.
Dierks Bentley will perform at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 at Dodge Theatre, 400 W. Washington St., Phoenix. Tickets, which are $33, go on sale 10 a.m. Saturday at the Dodge Theatre box office and Ticketmaster outlets. To charge by phone, call (480) 784-4444.
Major country artists with Valley roots
Dierks Bentley is not the first major country artist with roots in these parts. Here’s a look at some of the other major players in country music who have at one time resided in the Valley.
Robbins was born in Glendale in 1925 and began playing in West Valley honky-tonks such as The Hayloft and even had his own TV show on KPHO-TV (Channel 5) in Phoenix in the early ’50s. After signing with Columbia Records, Robbins made a name for himself as a singer of gunfighter ballads — most notably his self-penned classic “El Paso” — and country ballads. A true character — he raced on the NASCAR circuit and was even good enough to start in the Daytona 500 — Robbins died at 57 in 1982. He is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Born in Texas in 1929, Owens’ family moved to Mesa to escape the Dust Bowl when young Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens Jr. was 8. Owens discovered country music in East Valley honky-tonks and co-hosted a radio program before moving to Bakersfield, Calif., where he invented the twangy, electric “Bakersfield Sound.” Owens scored a ton of country hits (“I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” “Under Your Spell Again” and “Act Naturally” among the many), starred on TV’s “Hee Haw” and at one time owned Valley radio stations KESZ (99.9 FM) and KNIX (102.5 FM) (to this day, the latter station still uses Owens’ trademark red, white and blue guitar as its logo). Owens died in March in Bakersfield.
Born Mirriam Johnson in Phoenix in 1943, Jessi Colter (she changed her name to that of a gunfighter relative) was previously married to early rock guitar pioneer Duane Eddy (who recorded some of his reverb-soaked tunes in Phoenix) before marrying Waylon Jennings in 1969. Colter wrote and recorded a few bona fide country hits in the ’70s (most notably the top 5 “I’m Not Lisa” in 1975) before hitting it big, along with Waylon, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser, as a member of the outlaw country conglomeration that released the groundbreaking “Wanted! The Outlaws” in 1976. After a long break (to take care of ailing Waylon), Colter released an album in February and has opened shows for her son, country star Shooter Jennings.
The father of “outlaw country” was born and raised in Texas and played bass in Buddy Holly’s band during the ill-fated tour that ended with Holly’s death in 1959 in an airplane crash. A disc jockey, Jennings got a radio gig in Coolidge before moving to Phoenix (where he had an apartment near 36th Street and Thomas Road) and began singing and playing guitar with his new band at a club called JD’s before moving to Nashville in the mid-’60s. After a few hits, Jennings decided the only way to do things was his way, and with his self-produced 1973 album, “Honky Tonk Heroes,” Outlaw country was born. Jennings, with Colter and son Shooter, was a resident of Chandler at the time of his 2002 death and is buried in Mesa.