Jan
30

Album Review – Dierks Bentley’s “Up On The Ridge”

January 30, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  22 Comments

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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Preview & Purchase Tracks from Up On The Ridge

22 Comments to “Album Review – Dierks Bentley’s “Up On The Ridge””

  • Thanks for this. I’ll come clean that I am that elusive animal that loves both Dierks and Isbell. This album came from Dierks’ heart and it shows. Saw Dierks with Del, and the respect and deference he gave Del was genuine. I’m happy Dierks can cater to many audiences, and if his commercial success allows him to put out albums like “Up on the Ridge” – I’ll oblige. I will ignore what I don’t like.

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    • See, I can’t tell you why most Isbell fans would not be fans of this album. It’s really comes from the same place Isbell does. Dierks is a mainstream artist that ventures into the independent world, and Isbell is an independent artist that ventures into the mainstream. Their approach is very similar in my opinion.

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  • This certainly was an odd album. I didn’t care for it much, but I gave it more of a chance than I do most pop country. I think the fact that he only had 2 singles off the album with the highest charting 21 is very telling. Bentley is a guy that generally has multiple #1s and top ten hits on every album, but this did nothing with country radio. I think there was too much bluegrass for the pop country crowd and too many pop elements trying to cater to that crowd for the bluegrass fans.

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    • Seems weird when you say an album bombing commercially is a good thing, but I think in this case it is very telling. But you’re right. If he was going to make a bluegrass album, he should have been all in. But then, it may have come across as disingenuous, because Dierks is not a super picker.

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      • Actually when I first saw all the names on the album, I thought he had them to cover up the fact that he wasn’t a good picker.

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  • Oh, and if Cody Canada will name his son after Dierks, that tells me all I need to know about Dierks character and genuineness.

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  • I this review reflects my feelings almost exactly. If there is a happy medium between traditional and mainstream this is close to it. The sad thing is that the audience for this is small because usually people are closed one side or the other.

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  • To me I get the feeling that Dierks wanted to make an album honoring the music he listened to growing up. I just think that even though it wasn’t his usual sound, he was probably pushed to make it as commercially appealing as possible. Almost feels like his label was just throwing him a bone. Like ” Ok, you can make this one album your way, but the next 3 you do our way.” That is the price you pay for that “mainstream” success. However, I give all the credit in the world to Dierks for venturing outside of the little box Nashville has put him in and putting out a decent album.

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  • I’ll admit I really enjoyed this album. To me this is the same thing Miranda did with Pistol Annies. Both are a side project that is more of an independent album and not necessarily were looking for mainstream success, but somewhere in the middle. It’s a side project where both artists get to show their “rootsier” side. Dierks has always tapped into his “roots” which is bluegrass in which he has expressed many times. I understand that “Bad Angel” may be perceived as the more mainstream song on this album but is one of my favorites, but I love anything Miranda or Jamey Johnson touch. As for Dierks he’s always been on the fence for me. I really enjoyed him when he first showed up in Nashville until he did the album previous to this “Up On the Ridge” album. I thought his song “Sideways” was the worst song he’s ever had and I felt was way too pop country just as similiar as Honky Tonk Badonkadonk really. I just hate those club dance songs though.

    I really hope Dierks continues doing these side “bluegrass” albums or introduces more of this into his more mainstream albums even though this album didn’t do great $$ wise.

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  • I really liked this album and was hoping it would be the way Dierks went full time (and even further in bluegrass would be better yet),but doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.He went from this album to singing about “rock n roll booty’s” and “bro’s” on his latest,lol..

    My main complaint is having Miranda Lambert and Jamey J singing main verses on “Bad Angel” only to have Vince Gill and Alison Krauss singing background on an other song where you have to strain to even hear them.Without the liner notes most people wouldn’t even know it was them singing.Replace the wanna be rocker chick and Kid Rocks opening act with Vince And Alison next time,Dierks.

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    • I always had a soft spot for Dierks and was hoping this album was just the beginning of his venture into bluegrass as well. Then he went and released that god awful “am i the only one that wants to have fun” song shortly after. I guess the mediocre sales discouraged him.

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  • I’d also add that for all of Isbell’s talk about Bentley being some right wing yahoo because of the song, the only thing I think I ever heard him say about politics is that he opposes Arizona’s SB 1070. http://www.theboot.com/2010/07/08/dierks-bentley-arizona-immigration/

    I’m saying this as a huge Isbell fan who does not like Dierks Bentley that much, and supports SB 1070.

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    • That’s the stereotype, is that anybody who plays or listens to mainstream country is a sexist, racist, reactionary republican when in reality country music represents a wide swath of the political landscape. I can’t stand Toby Keith, but everyone likes to pigeon hole him as some ultra-conservative when he’s come out and said he’s a registered Democrat that voted for Obama.

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  • Do an article about Scott Biram doing video and recording sessions at SUN Studios

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  • i like bluegrass but i don’t care for this LP. it’s a definite pass. though when sampling, ‘rovin’ gambler’, was ok. it just seems like the country muzak that plays in the background of some joint that makes a middling biscuits and gravy.

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  • Rovin’ Gambler is a decent attempt, but it doesn’t compare to the Marty Robbins version.

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  • I’m not even ashamed to admit that I love this album.
    Fiddlin’ Around is probably one of my favorite songs ever.

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  • Good review, not sure why this is 1 1/2 years late. I know you can’t review everything, but this project was something that I thought would have gotten attention from SCM when it came out. Given it is a “mainstreamer” going a different direction.

    Trig said- “the Miranda and Jamey collaboration “Bad Angel”. If there is a play for commercial appeal on this album, this song is it.”
    Not sure about that… the song is about smoking, drinking and gambling in no uncertain terms. Clear Channel isn’t exactly playing that in the rotation.
    And again, not sure of the stance you take on the song? Good/bad? Of course with Miranda and Jamey in it, the stance is usually unclear.

    For those that have a problem with the idea of Miranda and Jamey getting lead vocals vs. Krauss and Gill singing back up in other songs. Ever consider that this was Dierks fun side project… maybe Miranda and Jamey are his friends… why fault a guy for wanting to do a song with some friends? Bad Angel was a fun song. Not nearly as deep as the tunes Krauss, Gill, Kristoffersen contributed to. So look at it as they got the better musical contribution, Miranda and Jamey got some beers and to sing a verse in a fun song.

    And then those that quickly shut Dierks down for not continuing to do the bluegrass. He does a grass song on every album. So he didn’t just “try” this and then decide not to do it due to lack of sales. Dierks is early/mid 30′s. And with out being a monster star like Urban, Paisley, Chesney, he has carved out a nice career and has left himself a lot of room to grow as an artist. I don’t think you’ll see Dierks singing “Sideways” in 10 years, but probably some more Grass. However, you’ll still see Paisley doing some gimmick tune, or Chesney with some steel drum in the song.
    Dierks has a lot of room to grow.

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  • dierks has put a bluegrass song on almost every cd hes released. .

    train travelin was a song on his cd witha what was i thinkin, and the del mccoury band played in it also.. thats one of the best songs hes ever recoreded

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ockde2N9YyI

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  • Back to Dierks’ character, I’ve met him and Cody Canada in person.
    When I met Dierks, it was after his show at 40 Watt (in downtown Athens, GA, might hold 150 people if you pack ‘em in, which we did). It was about 2:30 AM and he was coming back from the bars with the McCoury’s and a bunch of girl admirers in tow. I just walked up to him and introduced myself and asked if he’d take a picture with me and my little brother and he said of course. Some guy on his bus was yelling at him, saying they needed to go “now” and that he needed to get on the bus, but he said “No, I’m going to meet my fans first.” Coolest guy I’ve ever met.

    Speaking with Cody Canada(40 Watt again), he simply said he named his son after Dierks, and that Dierks is a great guy.

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  • Anyone catch Dierks on Letteman last night?

    Great song from the new “Home” album- “Tip it on back”. This isn’t your pop-country shit. Of course won’t be considered hardcore underground, but this new album of his could be solid.
    “Am I the only one” is radio friendly, but it isn’t pop.
    “Home” besides Isbell being a girl about it, the song is decent. Not political, just a song about America.
    “Tip it on back” Assuming this will be the new single, it will be interesting to see how radio receives it.

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  • I bought this album when it was first released and have given it more than a few spins, I truly rate it five stars. I’ve also come to like Jason Isbell and Drive-by Truckers since, and like them for what they do as well. This album hits the sweet spot for me between traditional bluegrass and good modern country/Americana music. I would pass on “Bad Angel” if it was Allison Krauss and Vince Gill instead of Jamey and Miranda. I don’t *like* traditional bluegrass music but I have the full collections from Trampled by Turtles and Old Crow Medicine Show, I buy their stuff the day it comes out. I don’t see what’s wrong with that, or why I should be required to be a fan of traditional bluegrass to enjoy music in this genre, whatever you want to call it.

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