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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Purchase Gravel & Gold
March 2, 2023 @ 9:51 am
March 2, 2023 @ 10:00 am
As in Mountain peaks? Telluride? The Dierks Bentley music festival is called 7 Peaks?
I’ll be here all week.
March 2, 2023 @ 10:17 am
Agree with most of this review. It’s a decent listen and sounds good but nothing really hits the spot. Everything just kinda leaves you wanting more. Also, it’s becoming way too trendy for artists to shit on mainstream country. Its to the point where the mainstream country guys are shitting on mainstream country music in their own mainstream country songs that embody the exact thing they’re shitting on. Hardy, ernest, even dierks a little bit here. Friggin grinds my gotdamn gears!!!
Save yourself the time and listen to jeremy pinnell’s last album Goodbye LA instead. It rips.
March 2, 2023 @ 10:53 am
Dierks strikes me as one of those guys who is capable of making good music but understands the pragmatism associated with making a living. I respect the fact that, although he does release pop country, he never fully adopted a bro-country or boyfriend country approach.
That said, a lot of what he does is frustrating, because when he wants to make good music, he is more than capable of doing so.
March 3, 2023 @ 6:52 am
It’s still his choice not to make 100% good country music.
March 2, 2023 @ 11:20 am
I dunno, something struck a stronger chord on this one than I think I expected – not counting the genius that is Hot Country Knights, this feels like a continuation from the promise on the end of ‘The Mountain’ with a few less concessions to Music Row – ‘Black’ or even ‘Riser’ this is not.
Maybe it’s the warmer production or how Bentley includes just a few more details to give his weathered hooks a bit more punch – the fiddle and mandolin pickups sound great on this album – but there’s something more winsome with Bentley’s music that gives it a bit more distinctive color than anything Jon Pardi’s delivered – hell, I’d say Bentley’s more consistent that Luke Combs often is too, especially having a low-key sense of humour.
Not better than Carly Pearce or Ashley McBryde’s recent work – really thought McBryde delivered a really good guest performance here, though – but I think the tricky thing is that a lot of folks want Bentley to make ‘Up On The Ridge Pt. 2’ – it’s hard to escape those expectations especially when the competition’s getting better and Bentley clearly loves that music, but I think I can appreciate what I got here.
March 2, 2023 @ 2:28 pm
As unfair as it is for fans to continue to expect “Up on The Ridge Pt. 2,” Dierks kind of keeps baiting us with what he says before releases. The same went for “The Mountain.” I think he’s been setting his expectations a little too high, and then when the album comes, it feels a little deflating, even if it’s still a solid effort.
March 2, 2023 @ 8:33 pm
Trigger, you hit it so on the head here. I feel like dierks pumped up this album like it was going to be an EPIC, and it’s just kind of good but no where near expectations
March 4, 2023 @ 8:46 am
This is it. I was hoping for The Mountain to be Up on the Ridge pt 2. So while it was good it was a little disappointing. Black was a terrible album and I like Riser a lot. Haven’t listened to this yet.
March 2, 2023 @ 11:25 am
Glorifying weed smoking is so passé. Much prefer Heartbreak Drinking Tour.
March 2, 2023 @ 11:26 am
Spot on review. Checked this one out on its release date, hoping for a lot more like “High Note”, and ended up mildly disappointed.
There are some other redeeming tracks. “Walking Each Other Home” is a great song, “Gold”, “Cowboy Boots”, and “Beer at my Funeral” are good – comparative to what they’re competing against for airplay.
Unironically, it might end up being hard for him to top the “Hot Country Knights” album at this point in his career. And I don’t mean that as a slight.
March 2, 2023 @ 12:22 pm
A new Hot Country Knights album would be an instant pre-order from me. This…not so much.
Leonard “Pervy” Thompson
March 2, 2023 @ 1:21 pm
I’m sure it’s a perfectly fine album, but I can’t see myself ever going out of my way to listen to it.
March 2, 2023 @ 1:30 pm
Like I said before, I have been a fan since day 1. I didn’t love his album, “Black.” I hated recent single, “Beers On Me.” I am glad the new album wasn’t full of any of that mess. Modern Day Drifter is my favorite album he ever made. This is more my speed.
March 2, 2023 @ 5:55 pm
The standout here is “Walking Each Other Home,” the song I want to hear on the radio this summer with the windows rolled down is “Roll On,” the one that’s sneaky good is “Still.” This would be a play-straight-through album for me if it weren’t for “Gold.” It’s been nice seeing Dierks making the morning and late night TV rounds this week, but I have a suspicion he’s only on because none of the major networks want Morgan Wallen anywhere near their studios.
I’ve been listening to country radio for nearly 50 years. I’m not a “washed in the blood” pure country evangelical. My main desire is for country radio to sound as good to me as it has in my favorite eras: the pre-Urban Cowboy late ’70s, the New Traditionalist late ’80s, the wide open pre-Billy Ray Cyrus early ’90s, and the era that started a couple of years ago and keeps getting better.
I try to keep up with the indie artists and outliers that SCM has introduced me to, but you know how hard some addictions are to break.
March 2, 2023 @ 8:47 pm
This was a very fair review that pretty much encapsulated the way I feel about this album. I do think this album could have benefited from cutting some of the fat, and kept it to 10 songs. Solid album.
March 3, 2023 @ 5:47 am
Are others bothered by the editing done to his voice? To me, that’s one of the biggest distinctions between this and more traditional country. In people like Tyler Childers and even Zach Bryan you hear the real emotion in their voices. I feel none of that hear because it sounds like the studio did a nice amount of ‘perfecting’ his voice.
March 3, 2023 @ 6:53 am
Overall, a forgettable album. At this point though, I can’t expect much. After 4 or 5 albums from just about anyone, we are lucky to get 3 or 4 songs to carry forward. On the other hand, Lucero’s new album kicks supreme ass.
March 3, 2023 @ 10:26 am
Nashville, and, frankly, most singers, should repeat the old-time standard of cutting cover songs.
Original doesn’t automatically equal better.
March 3, 2023 @ 10:38 am
That would be boring as heck. I am not an artist at all, but If I was, I imagine my drive would be from being creative. What do I know though?
March 3, 2023 @ 8:49 am
I like it okay. It’s a mainstream album and a very decent one. Dierks seems to struggle with capturing the magic of his first couple of albums. His writing was pretty good and was almost good on this one. I mean you will get a good verse then a predictable verse. Old Pickup has a cool first verse then goes right back to sliding over etc. lines. I really like his take on bluegrass stuff. I guess I am just left thinking what would Dierks make if radio didn’t matter.
March 3, 2023 @ 6:28 pm
I like Dierks. I didn’t hate “Black”. It’s his pop country album. This hasn’t knocked me over yet. I’m curious of the two albums scrapped. I hope he goes the Marty Stuart route someday.
Shoutout to the new Lucero record here in the comments. It snuck up on me.
March 6, 2023 @ 11:10 am
I felt this way first listen. Second listen got better. Third listen I thought, woah, this album is actually pretty dang good.