Dierks Bentley has rarely worked this hard on an album.
The 12 tracks on his new release "Home" represent just a fraction of the cuts the country music star recorded and wrote in the last year as he restlessly searched for the right combination of tracks.
"I wrote too many songs," Bentley joked. "I wrote 70. I wrote a lot. There's 64 that are never going to see the light of day. That's 64 days that I can't get back."
Bentley was in high spirits this month as he sat backstage in the Hank Williams dressing room at Ryman Auditorium. He was a few minutes away from soundcheck for a special show in the iconic building that would include a guest appearance by Del McCoury and his band, and an ambitious set list that featured new songs and old hits, a long acoustic set and even his take on Pink Floyd.
With one No. 1 hit single from the album and another possibly on the way, "Home" already marks a resounding return to mainstream country after Bentley's foray into a kind of rocking bluegrass on the critically acclaimed "Up on the Ridge." Though it didn't net him a hit, "Ridge" did earn him a series of high-end nominations and a little bit of dirt-road cred in the roots music community.
"When you can sit down and have lunch with John Prine and the old-school cats and hold your head high, that's important for me," Bentley said.
The album was a mainstay on the Billboard bluegrass charts for a year and the whole experience had Bentley fired up and ready to continue the magic. He grabbed "Ridge" producer Jon Randall Stewart and headed for Asheville, N.C., about a year ago, even allowing fans to watch via webcam while he recorded the 15 songs he thought would make up his next album.
Bentley hit the road not long after and returned home with the urge to tinker after spending weeks in series of venues that brought him and his new material face to face with his fans. He pitched 14 of the songs recorded in Asheville, saving "Am I the Only One" to serve as the new album's first single.
He dreaded breaking the news to Capitol Records Nashville President and CEO Mike Dungan, who had already once stood by Bentley when he took what some regarded as a gamble with "Ridge."
"I was like, 'Sorry. Can we write that off as preproduction? I'll pay for it,'" Bentley said.
Dungan sent Bentley back to the studio with his blessing, but also a fairly short deadline for new material. Not only did Bentley write new tracks, he began to call publishers around Nashville looking for cuts — a rare move for the singer-songwriter.
He says he listened to thousands of songs as he searched for material. He was looking for tracks that could replicate the electricity he demanded from his live shows.
"To me it's kind of like a hockey game," Bentley said. "We want to get that win. I'm not sure how we get it, but we want to walk off that stage feeling like, 'Yeah!'"
To reproduce that feeling in the studio, the 36-year-old singer reconvened his pre-"Ridge" band of musicians and producers, guys like guitarists J.T. Corenflos and Steven Sheehan and drummer Steve Brewster who've been with him since the start of his career.
"To a man when we called them to book the session, you could tell they were really fired up," said Luke Wooten, who co-produced the album with Brett Beavers.
They ended up cutting 21 more songs and settled on 12 — six written by Bentley and his writing partners and six from outside sources, including a few who had never landed a cut on a record.
They blasted out good-time songs like "Tip It On Back," "Diamonds Make Babies" and "5-1-5-0," aimed to melt hearts with "Breathe You In," "When You Gonna Come Around" and "Thinking of You" and bought themselves more time in the studio by producing the title cut, a poignant song that Dungan immediately snatched up as a second single. It's now in the top 10 and climbing.
He accomplished his goal, flavoring the album with acoustic instruments, but didn't sacrifice the rocking country sound of his live show. And he finished with an album he's excited about. He even spent release day calling fans to see what they thought.
It just took a little extra effort to get there.
"Thirty-six songs in a year, that's a lot of information," Wooten said. "Dierks is not a hands-off guy. He wants to be there for every note and is very involved in parts and arrangements. I'm sure having the record 'done' done and come out is a huge relief because he put an amazing amount of time in on this record."