Dierks Bentley’s heavily bluegrass-influenced 2010 album Up On the Ridge was a gamble, and it continues to pay off. The native Arizonan’s fifth studio full-length had more guest appearances by bluegrass big-timers like Vince Gill, Chris Thile, Alison Krauss than it had big hits, but that’s OK. Because Up On the Ridge also established Bentley as a bankable country star willing to push himself artistically and steer into places out of sight from Music Row.
Bentley’s new album The Mountain certainly doesn’t completely spurn mainstream country radio, but it does have a relaxed, rock-solid vibe that would stand out among the heavily processed arena-ready anthems that fill those playlists.
There’s a good story behind The Mountain, and here’s the short version: While headlining the 2017 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Bentley caught the creative bug, inspired by Colorado’s natural beauty. So he flew a bunch of his favorite songwriters out to Telluride and together they wrote a whole bunch of songs in five days. Then he returned to the Rockies to record the album, with guests like Brandi Carlile, the Brothers Osborne and Sam Bush stopping in to contribute.
The result is an album that finds a satisfying midpoint between Bentley’s usual country and his rootsy interests. The Mountain starts strong, with a rousing ode to middle-aged duality called “Burning Man” and the title track, a geologic pep talk that transforms from a lurching Neil Young groove into an acoustic whirlwind of a coda. “Living” offers up the album’s most easily likeable vocal melody (plus some electric guitar crunch) and “Woman, Amen”—with its thunderous drums and Mumford-style backing vocals—is the closest thing to an obvious radio bid here.
The album ends on an upward tick, too. Three of the last four songs — “Son of the Sun,” “Stranger to Myself” and “How I’m Going Out” — ride high atop easygoing grooves and knowing maturity, with Bentley clearly in a reflective mood fueled, probably, by Telluride’s crisp mountain air and incredible horizons. And the fourth of those final four songs is the Carlile duet, “Travelin’ Light,” a sublime slice of bluegrass-indebted, gospel-tinged roots-pop about leaving your demons behind. It’s a clear highlight of this set.
Wherever there are mountains, of course, you’ll find a valley, and The Mountain sags in the middle, where a couple songs (“Nothing On But the Stars” and “My Religion”) never seem to pick up steam and “Goodbye in Telluride” feels ill-conceived. Its quasi-rapped verses and poppy chorus sound like components of a hit, but they seem at odds with the song’s breakup theme.
Overall, though, The Mountain offers plenty of evidence that whatever creative spirit Bentley felt in Telluride last year, it was real and vibrant and fertile. Across these 13 songs, he sounds refreshed, enlightened and ready for another however many years as a bright spot in mainstream country music.