Country music is a weird beast. We know who the A List stars are – Garth, Stapleton, Combs, Carrie – and the ones who desperately want to be thought of as A Listers. Mainly, those in the latter category are kept bobbing on the ocean of noise by Country Radio, an entity which helps sell concert tickets and the idea of American rural life back to its listener. Think of Jason Aldean or Luke Bryan, good ol’ boys who rock out and sound good at 80 decibels.
Dierks Bentley, akin to someone like Eric Church, seems like he has a foot in each camp. Over the years he has made his share of radio-friendly unit shifters, seventeen of which have gone to number one, but beneath the sheen he seems to be a solid musician who is familiar with David Bowie’s famous maxim: you make one album for ‘them’ and one album for ‘you’. For instance, his Hot Country Knights project which he made with his backing band and used as ‘tour openers’ for his last tour was for him, the so-so Black was for money.
The latest album for ‘them’ seems to have been junked by Dierks because he didn’t think it was ‘good enough and had to start over twice’. The big radio hits Beers On Me and Gone don’t make the new album but the latter made recent setlists alongside the old warhorses: opener What Was I Thinkin’ (side one track one of his debut album), ode to Seat 7A Drunk on a Plane, positive pair I Hold On and Living, plus fan favourites Am I The Only One and 5-1-5-0. Missing from these is his best song, Bourbon In Kentucky, the opening track of his seventh album Riser that proves he can do brooding rock as well as throwaway fun.
Gravel & Gold is his first album under his own name since 2018’s The Mountain, which included contributions from Brothers Osborne and Brandi Carlile. Dierks has followed his trick of picking a country favourite, here Ashley McBryde, and a critical darling from outside country radio, the magnificent Billy Strings; the former is heard on a song that exhausts every use for Cowboy Boots, the latter on closing track High Note, which was written by Charlie Worsham (who is coming to the UK to support Ward Thomas this spring). For Dierks, life should come to its natural end with ‘Willie’s best’ and some bluegrass records by Flatt & Scruggs. Billy’s solo and closing wigout, on a major release from Music Row, just proves how far the ship has turned since Chris Stapleton brought country back in the mid-2010s.
Album opener Same Ol Me, written with Luke Dick and Jon Randall, is one of those songs sung by country veterans to prove they are still alive and kicking (‘what you get is gonna be what you see’). Dierks is 47, which means he’s of the same vintage as Luke Bryan (46!), Brad Paisley (50!!) and Keith Urban (55!!!) and thus makes the same type of Middle of the Road rockin’ country as them. Dierks has the gruffest voice, though, as befits a chap born in Phoenix, and he can certainly sell the material well.
Randall also co-wrote the three-chord single Gold, whose chorus gives the album its title (see if you can spot Charlie Worsham on ganjo in the music video!). The song starts the second side of the album, which is a coherent collection of 14 songs. Unlike Morgan Wallen, Dierks is still releasing cordon bleu steaks rather than carb-laden vol-au-vents, some of which were written by Ross Copperman: All The Right Places is about learning from heartbreak, with a thump that will help the song sound good in an arena, and Sun Sets In Colorado is another one of those songs which boasts how there’s no place like where you grew up, even if like Dierks you live in Tennessee.
Ain’t All Bad is a perky break-up song with some pedal steel, on which Dierks sings that he ‘got the old me back’. It’s filler, and maybe it’s one of the holdovers from one of the two junked albums. Dierks has been around so long he’s now an elder statesman, which means plenty of A Listers can get in the room with him. Four of them – Hardy, Gorley, Dick and Ross – came up with two other breakup tunes. Heartbreak Drinking Tour is a slow shuffle that must have started with the title and tries to cram in as much alcohol as it can (Tanqueray, Cuervo, wine, whiskey and beer), while Something Real, on which he sings of needing ‘a little backbone in my backbeat’, has a chorus that can fit between beer and car commercials on radio.
Well, if you want real, go and tap up four writers who have had about 382 number ones between them. Ironically, this song seems to be complaining about the sort of songs they’ve all written for people like Dierks. Ditto Jim and Brett Beavers – whose best-known copyright is probably Red Solo Cup – who gifted Dierks the song Beer at My Funeral, which goes big on assonance with lines like ‘a black Cadillac hearse lacks six-packs’. They also helped him write the ballad Roll On, with some lovely dobro high in the mix alongside of those lyrics about keeping on keeping on.
Conversely, Still is one of those songs about doing nothing at all (‘my head’s clear as the sky’), which namechecks the Lord in the chorus. Walking Each Other Home’s first couplet mentions Kerouac and Shel Silverstein; it’s a warm song with some woahs in the middle eight and was written with John Osborne. Equally warm is the fiddle-soaked (Jenee Fleenor’s is my guess) Old Pickup. Add this to the Truck Song Playlist alongside with I Drive Your Truck, 7500 OBO and Truck Yeah.
Dierks seem to be doing ‘one for you, one for me’ on the same release, with something for everybody no matter your age, sex or location.