Album Review – Dierks Bentley’s “Gravel & Gold”

In June of 2022, I was able to check off a bucket list item by attending the 50-year-old Telluride Bluegrass Festival in beautiful Colorado. Commuting to work each day in a gondola car down the mountain into Telluride at 8,700 feet was quite the experience. But this was no leisurely assignment. Often throughout the week, the cool mountain rain squalls made for a cold and damp experience.

This was the case right as Molly Tuttle and her band Golden Highway took the stage. Just as the strings rang out, the rain came down, scattering the folks in the very front seats in the VIP section. Here was Molly making her debut at Telluride, and the weather wasn’t exactly cooperating. But as others fled, part-time Telluride resident Dierks Bentley plopped down right in one of the front rows to give Molly his undivided attention and show his support.

That experience seemed to encapsulate the complex character that is Dierks Bentley. When he sings the song “Sun Sets in Colorado” as the second track from this new album Gravel & Gold, he does so from the heart. As much as he’s unequivocally a creature of the country mainstream, the soul of Dierks resides somewhere else, metaphorically braving the mountain rain in Telluride, and taking in the music of Molly Tuttle.

Dierks Bentley made some pretty big promises ahead of the release of Gravel & Gold. “I’m in the bluegrass space. I’m in the traditional country space. It’s always been important to me to have the love and support of this community in Nashville, particularly the older establishment and the Opry – and to know that I’m able to do that but also get out on the road and play the big venues too? It doesn’t get any better than that for me,” Dierks said.

Dierks plays both sides of the country music cultural divide, and in the past he’s put out albums that very much appeal to folks who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to corporate radio. This ranges from his 2010 bluegrass record Up on the Ridge, to the hilarious ’90s-inspired country of his side project Hot Country Knights. What Dierks was saying ahead of this new album, and the fact that for the first time he stepped into the producer role raised hopes this would perhaps be one of those Dierks Bentley albums where he shirked the mainstream, and did what he wanted, damn the commercial implications.

But that’s not exactly what Gravel & Gold is. It’s definitely not like his 2016 album Black either where Dierks went full blow pop country and allowed producer Ross Copperman to do his worst. This album definitely has its moments, and it’s definitely more country than most of the mainstream. But these days saying “more country than most of the mainstream” is a sliding scale that has slid so significantly in the country direction, Dierks is no longer one of only a few good guys to root for. There’s now a whole group of good guys and gals, and it’s not unusual for them to be more country than Dierks Bentley, or Gravel & Gold.

It really comes down to the lyrical content. In the song “Something Real,” Dierks Bentley sings, “I can’t really pour my heart out on the FM radio. ‘Cause the way I’m really feeling won’t fill up the coliseum, on the edge of Tupelo.” It’s kind of like the time when Peter, Paul and Mary sang, “But if I really say it, the radio won’t play it, unless I lay it between the lines…”

“Something Real” by Dierks is a song about seeking out the real things in life. But the song doesn’t really fulfill its own promise, while offering a mea culpa in the first verse. The album’s big single called “Gold” is quite a fun listen. But despite the cool Mike Campbell-sounding slide guitar tone, it’s just another mainstream country song about a dirt road. “Old Pickup” is a straight up traditional country song in style, unquestionably. But even though it’s old, it’s still a song about a pickup, like pretty much every other radio country song.

This is kind of how Gravel & Gold goes. Yes, there is a bit more country instrumentation than you may expect from a major label artist. But Dierks is no longer trying to compete with Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt on a weekly basis. In this era we have Jon Pardi, Lainey Wilson, Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde, and yes even Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen being more country than what you would expect from radio a few years ago. This renders Gravel & Gold rather general and pedestrian feeling in moments.

But at the same time, putting away the critic’s perspective, and just trying to put yourself in the shoes of a listener, Gravel & Gold is a pretty good listen throughout. Again, the commonality in the themes of “Beer At My Funeral” and “Cowboy Boots” leave some to be desired. But there’s no doubt they’re entertaining songs to sing along to, and decidedly country. Dierks also does find some deeper moments, even if they’re a bit few and far between. Check out the tracks “Still” and “Walking Each Other Home” if that’s what you’re into.

And even though we started off all of this with Dierks watching Molly Tuttle in the rain of Telluride and later telling us, “I’m in the bluegrass space,” that’s only truly indicative on this album via one of the fourteen songs, and it’s the final one where he jams out with Billy Strings, Charlie Worsham, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, and Sam Bush on “High Note.” It’s a pretty big time, but also feels like a bonus at the end as opposed to a defining expression of the album.

As good as Dierks Bentley can be, and as better as he is compared to some of his peers in the mainstream, you always seem to want a bit more from him. Though he can have the freedom to noodle around and stretch the boundaries a bit more than some or most, he’s always mindful that the coliseum on the edge of Tupelo still needs to be filled, and that home in Telluride needs a kitchen remodel.

It’s a push and pull with Dierks Bentley, and you see that play out in the songs of Gravel & Gold. He gets moments to do what he wants to do, but also does what he needs to sustain Dierks Inc. But since he’s such a universally-beloved guy, he’s in a position where when he dabbles with bluegrass and a little bit of traditional country, it actually makes a difference to the flavor profile of country, because people are actually listening, and many of those people are in the mainstream.

1 1/2 Peaks Up (6.9/10)

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