Ready to bring on the hits

He was Brad Paisley's opening act at the Tacoma Dome last year. But country superstar Dierks Bentley will be the main attraction Saturday night as he delivers "What Was I Thinkin,' " "Feel the Fire" and other radio hits at the 11,000-seat Puyallup Fair grandstand.

Fans can expect a few cuts from the Arizona native’s June CD release, “Up On the Ridge,” which explores his passion for bluegrass music. Last week, he talked about why he changed musical directions at a point in his career when other artists might choose to play it safe.

What made you want to do an acoustic bluegrass record this time around?

It’s something I always wanted to do, and I wanted to do it in the middle of my career as opposed to the end like some folks do. It’s music that’s important to me now. Every record I’ve ever made has had a bluegrass track on it.

I’ve heard several country stars complain about how conservative country radio programmers are. Were you worried that you were taking a big risk by going in this direction?

I had to ask myself, you know, “Are you comfortable with not having any songs on country radio for a year?” Which is something I was completely uncomfortable with. I love hearing my songs on the radio. Country radio is everything to me. But to make this record the right way, that was the way I had to approach it. So I went into it not thinking I would have any airplay at all. So to have some for “Up On the Ridge,” to make the top 20 … it means a lot.

So what is it about this kind of music?

When I first moved to Nashville, I was 19 years old, and I came here looking for the real thing – something authentic I could get behind. I didn’t find it on Music Row.

I stumbled into a bar called the Station Inn, and here’s guys my age … playing bluegrass music, but also playing country songs as well, George Jones songs on upright bass and a banjo and fiddle and mandolin. It was just so real. It just really struck me as what I’d been looking for. I tried to find a foundation to start building from and found it in that community.

Even my big mainstream country hit records, like “What Was I Thinkin’?” and “Sideways,” the first thing you hear is a Dobro kickin’ off, leadin’ into a banjo. So it’s always been in there. This record, I just wanted to dive a little deeper and explore what happens when you remove an electric guitar from the recording process.

You worked with Del McCoury, Alison Krauss and Miranda Lambert, among others. Why did you choose the people that you chose to work with, and how did you go about recruiting everybody?

I just thought certain songs fit certain people. “Bad Angel” was a Verlon Thompson song that Guy Clark sang on, and Darrell Scott. And I thought, “Who would be (right for) the modern-day version?” And I thought Jamey Johnson and Miranda Lambert would be perfect. I called ’em up on their cell phones and they came in.

Everything on the record came about pretty organically. It was never overly thought. It wasn’t like a puzzle piece. It was just, “Hell, let’s call Alison Krauss and talk her into this song.” She came in. That’s the way it all came about. It was a lot of fun.

You’ve got the Dylan song and the U2 song on there, too. Why did you choose those songs?

The U2 song just came about as a result of being a friend of Del’s, Del McCoury. I just love hearing his voice on different types of songs. He’s sung some Tom Petty in his career, and he’s sung some Frank Sinatra. And I thought I really wanted to hear him sing a U2 song (“Pride (In the Name of Love)”). And we thought if we’re gonna do a U2 song, the only way to do it right is to get the Punch Brothers to play the track. ... They can play everything from Bach to Radiohead to Bill Monroe. They’ve really found a way to make that song stand the test of time.

The Bob Dylan tune (“Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”), I originally heard that song from Tim O’Brien. I just loved his version of that song. … It was really cool to actually sing it with Tim at the (Telluride) Bluegrass Festival earlier this year. Tim did all the hard work. He transcribed the original into the bluegrass field. We just used his as the guideline.

Ernest Jasmin: 253-274-7389

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