The night Ralph Stanley died, Dierks Bentley found himself flipping through photos of their studio session together for the bluegrass icon's 2015 album Ralph Stanley & Friends: Man of Constant Sorrow.
"Man, it's kind of getting depressing," Bentley said by phone the next morning. "You lose Merle Haggard and Ralph Stanley and so many other artists in other genres, it's one of those years that's kind of like, Enough. These are the guys that just can't be replaced. It's not just because of their songs and their voices. It's a cultural thing, too. They represent a time period, a different America."
Bentley, 40, isn't just tossing up platitudes. In 2010, he released his own bluegrass album, Up on the Ridge, temporarily pausing a thriving career full of No. 1 hits like Every Mile a Memory, What Was I Thinkin' and Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go).
"That record's responsible for the whole second half of my career," he said. "Half the songs I cut were songs I did not write. Before that, I'd written every song on a lot of the records I had. It really opened my ears to try to find great songs and help tell a story and make a full album that has a theme. ... I think I'm making my best country records now because of that bluegrass record."
That includes Bentley's latest album, Black. Borrowing his wife Cassidy's maiden name for its title, the album is a brooding, often intense look at a relationship's ups and downs. Some of it's autobiographical, some of it's not — but either way, it's resonating with fans. Lead single Somewhere on a Beach became his 14th No. 1 hit, and the album debuted to rave reviews and his best sales week to date.
Bentley will bring his tour to Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on July 16. Calling from a strip mall in Manhattan, Kan. — "There's a Goodwill here, there's a closed-down True Value hardware store; it's pretty lonesome over here" — he talked about his growth and the risks he took on Black.
When you did Up on the Ridge, did you encounter any resistance from folks in your circle who were just looking for the next Every Mile a Memory?
Oh, yeah. I heard that my career was over. To make a bluegrass record in the middle of my country career? Looking back on it now, yeah, I was absolutely out-of-my-mind crazy. But I've never made very good decisions from the mind. All my decisions come from the gut. I was on a bus, opening for Brad Paisley somewhere, feeling kind of stifled musically, and I was like, man, I've got to do this.
All of your albums take some interesting stylistic paths, and Black is right up there with them. Do you think you took risks on this album?
I think you take a risk anytime you start with absolutely nothing. I had no ideas, no themes, no sounds, no songs left over. I wouldn't say I'm the most proficient writer. I probably write 10 songs for every one that I would even think about recording. So there's a lot of physical labor that goes into the writing process.
When I wrote the song Black, I was like, Okay, that's really interesting; it's kind of a dark, sexy song, but it really has an edge to it. I kind of leapt from that song off into the deep end and ended up finding songs that lingered more in the shadows of love, or the darker side. I went in to start sequencing some stuff, and the record fell out quickly in a way that felt like a story of a young guy going through the ups and downs of a relationship, and maturing as the album goes on.
One of my colleagues described Black as your Lemonade.
Ooh! Yeah! When I first started working on the record, I was watching that show The Affair, and I was like, man, that'd be a great concept record, to write a record about having an affair. It was always brewing in the back of my mind. When I went to sequence this record, that's kind of what I had written about.
I think where I took chances on this record, a lot of it is personal. A lot's autobiographical, but a lot of it isn't. A lot of it's me taking some creative freedom to step into somebody else's shoes. When fans hear it, they're not sure whether it's really about me or not. I have to say, I give my wife a lot of credit for letting me put her name on the cover, because I'm sure people think some of these songs are about us, and that we went through some hard times. (Laughs.)
Different for Girls is a fairly feminist song written by two guys and performed by you (and Elle King, of course). Why did you feel that was your song to sing?
J.T. Harding and Shane McAnally wrote that song. I heard it, and it really resonated with me for a lot of reasons. I have two daughters, so once they came along, I started seeing the world from a different perspective. But I'm also surrounded by really strong women: my manager, my business manager, my tour assistant, my publicist, the president of my record label. I see the obstacles they've had to overcome to get to where they are. It's not a song I could've sung maybe five, six, seven, eight years ago, but something I can definitely sing now, and I feel I need to be the one singing that song. The response on social media has been crazy, how many girls are gravitating towards the song. It's a good song, and I can say that unbiasedly, because I did not write it. So I can brag on it.
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.