Six years ago, Dierks Bentley more or less got asked not to hang out so much at the Grand Ole Opry.
He was a relative newcomer to Nashville and was honing his craft as a singer-songwriter while attending Vanderbilt University and doing country music research for The Nashville Network.
"The old TNN building was right across from the Opry," Bentley said, and that gave him the opportunity to get his name on the backstage-pass list. "So every Friday I'd go and watch the Opry and go home. On Saturday, I'd come back. I had a great little setup.
"But Pete (Opry General Manager Pete Fisher), he caught wind of it, said I was on the list every week. `We love Dierks, we know he loves the Opry, but ... if he could limit his visits to just once a month, we'd appreciate it.'"
Last fall, Bentley, 29, received a lifetime invitation to the venerable institution when he became the youngest member of the Opry.
"It was really special to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry — to be inducted — I refer to that as the ultimate backstage pass," he said.
"Dierks has come a long way in a short period of time," Fisher said. "Those many visits were the early signs of a special connection that Dierks continues to share with the Opry family."
In the months after his induction, Bentley turned 30, his second album joined his first in going platinum, the single "Come a Little Closer" reached No. 1 and he was nominated for top male vocalist by the Academy of Country Music. And he took a rare break from his nonstop touring — to elope to Mexico with his high school sweetheart.
Bentley (Dierks is his mother's maiden name) arrived in Nashville from Arizona in 1994 and spent the next few years trying to decide on his craft.
"You get there and it's really hard to figure out how you can get started. It's scary, too."
There were times in Nashville when the artist who now sells out large arenas played to an empty house.
"Not one person was there — just the bartender — and even he left to make a phone call."
His first appearance as an Opry performer came April 18, 2003. There have been about two dozen since as part of an exhausting tour schedule that involves more than 200 dates and some 300 days a year on the road.
"Every show's a chance to go out there and win the battle of trying to perfect our show and I'm surrounded by guys who feel the same way. We're like a little football team. Like every night it's a win-or-lose situation. That's what makes all this worthwhile."
Bentley, with his trademark scruffy beard and dark blond ringlets, shows no signs of wear from the nightly battles. His guitar isn't so lucky. He points out the dings, cracks and scratches in the acoustic instrument, often recalling where they occurred — usually at the hands of a roadie.
"I was thinking about putting an actual date on there, where it happened, maybe getting the guy to sign it. It's getting beat up pretty good."
The guitar is one of several instruments hanging in the back room of Bentley's tour bus, along with various suitcases and gear.
Bentley, barefoot in torn jeans and wearing a black T-shirt, talks in an almost staccato delivery, occasionally interrupting himself as new thoughts crowd out the old ones. His Blackberry is never far away.
"I love this bus. This is very comfortable for me. Next year, we're going to have a semi to go along with the bus. More gear, more lights. With all this (stuff), there's no room to hang out back here, I'd like to have this be a jam room."
Unlike some artists, the small back room is not Bentley's. He sleeps in a bunk like everybody else on the tour — sometimes with his four-legged companion Jake ("half spitz, half one-night stand").
"If they're looking for the antidote to avian flu virus, it's probably developed on here — nine people breathing the same air for three years. We need to take this bus back to the house, have it detoxed and start a little cleaner next year."
He also hopes to ease up on touring so he has more time for writing. Most of the songs on both albums have his hand in them.
"You can only concentrate on one thing at a time. I can't write songs and also be out here on the road. I did that with my last record. I had to have another bus come out here with me — get off this bus, get into another bus, try to get into the writing mode. I'd rather be back in Nashville having a little more time to write songs and to plan the tours."
His tour, with Kenny Chesney, continues through June.
"We've expanded beyond country and bluegrass to rock, alt rock. My music goes down best with domestic light, cold beer. ... it's for people who like going to NASCAR races and love watching football. Good songs, good melodies, great instrumentation. Less instruments ... it's really stripped down but it's really big sounding. Each song should be its own little concert in itself. The overall goal is to move people through music.
"During my show I'll do Johnny Cash, I'll do Hank Williams. Maybe some of the younger people who see our show won't know who Waylon Jennings is and maybe they'll dig in there and find out after we do it. We also do some of the stuff that's more their direction. It's rock, I guess. Not bad '80s rock, just stuff that's a little more on that side of country music."
He said his four band members are as devoted to performing as he is. At times on the road if they're in a town and don't have a concert date, they'll find a bar with a stage and a few folks and set up.
"I love it, man. It's been three years straight I've been out here doing this — but for us, it's what it's all about."