Here in 2012, we live in a wickedly polarized environment, especially with the United States being in an election cycle. There seems to be very little that is gray. Either someone is saving the world, or you’re stenciling a Hitler mustache on them and posting it to Facebook. A musical parallel to this was illustrated when Jason Isbell blamed Dierks Bentley for ripping off his song “In A Razor Town”. The fervor quickly became political on Isbell’s side, with the former Drive By Trucker lumping Dierks in with all of country music’s pop-oriented fare, even going as far as saying he hopes that people that come to the defense of Dierks “don’t vote” through his Twitter feed.
Certainly a little perspective seems to be called for. Though I happen to agree that Isbell has a great case for “In A Razor Town” being ripped off by Dierks’ “Home”, the assailant is likely not Dierks, but the other songwriter Dan Wilson. Furthermore, lumping Dierks with the Justin Moore’s and Rascal Flatts’ of the world and calling him a “douche” makes Isbell come across as bitter, and more importantly, uninformed. Trust me, I’ve called many a pop country star a “douche” over the years, but I have also gone out of my way to say it is important to draw distinctions when talking about pop country stars.
And that’s what leads us to Dierks Beltley’s Up On The Ridge from the summer of 2010, an album I’ve been asked to review many times, because despite the “where” and the “who” it came from, shows remarkable heart, progressiveness, and independence.
When I’ve given positive reviews to some mainstream country albums, many times I’ve had to gerrymander the system to factor in that they were made under the very obtrusive and controlling Music Row environment in Nashville. The elements of safety and formula go without saying for these types of albums. But Up On The Ridge doesn’t have that feel. If anything, it feels like it originated from the alt-country or Americana world, with a lot of progressiveness, and a “clean” aspect more indicative of play for the NPR demographic than mainstream radio.
The idea is that this is a “bluegrass” album, but Flatt & Scruggs fans shouldn’t get their hopes up too much. Though there is some straight up bluegrass here like the song “Rovin’ Gambler”, most of the music is more of a progressive take on bluegrass, incorporating drums for example. Nonetheless, it is fervently true to it’s concept, and to a fresh approach. There’s virtually no electric instruments on the album. That in itself is supremely bold for modern-day Music Row fare.
This album started off as a side project that grew into something more, and with the tremendous amount of collaboration in it, that can be seen. The Punch Brothers and Chris Thile appear numerous times. Del McCoury, Rob McCoury, Ronnie McCoury, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, Sam Bush, Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson are some of the other names that might get you excited just by seeing the list of contributors. This album is very much a collaborative effort. Though Bentley is not given sole songwriting credit on any song, he’s given some credit on all of the album’s standout tracks, including “Up On The Ridge”, “Rovin’ Gambler”, “Draw Me A Map”, “You’re Dead To Me”, and “Down In The Mine”.
Instead of taking a myopic view on one bluegrass approach, Up On The Ridge takes a world view and attempts to hit on most aspects; more a bluegrass primer, meant for the unfamiliarized masses than the devotees of the sub-genre, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because of this approach, I sense there might be some cherry picking of it’s tracks contingent on listener’s tastes, but this also means this album has a lot of spice and keeps the ear attentive, and makes you appreciate the different styles even if they’re not normally your flavor. Dierks bluegrass take of U2’s “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” with Del and The Punch Brothers is something I’d probably not be up for normally, but the way the song illustrates the parallels between bluegrass and classical composition is brilliant.
“Down In The Mine” has the essence of an Old Crow Medicine Show song, with it’s overt message and language. “Draw Me A Map” feels like the Alison Krauss-style of bluegrass: mainstream sensibilities without compromising a tie to the roots. Only two songs on this album felt like they didn’t work: a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” that wasn’t necessarily awful as much as it was out of place, and the Miranda and Jamey collaboration “Bad Angel”. If there is a play for commercial appeal on this album, this song is it.
Is this a great bluegrass album? Of course not. But a great bluegrass album would also not be a vehicle to introduce a generation of people to Del McCoury, Kris Kristofferson, and bluegrass music in general. Is it the album that Dierks set out to make without commercial consideration or label meddling? I kind of think it is, and it’s moderate sales seem to reflect that.
Being a hardcore Dierks fan of any stripe might be a little maddening. If you’re a fan of pop country, you might see a project like this and wrinkle your nose at it, while if you love this album, the potentially-Isbell ripped-off song “Home” may make you feel betrayed or embarrassed. I don’t know if to characterize it as a balance or a war, but Dierks’ career has been a tale of commercial appeal and artistic concerns all intertwined. The greater lesson is that it is rarely fair to pigeon hole an artist or their music against a polarized ideal. It would not be fair to Jason Isbell, and it is not fair to Dierks. Up On The Ridge proves that.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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