When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Dierks Bentley packed up his things and moved his wife and kids from Nashville out to Colorado, where he spent much of the year unplugged from music and savoring life in the mountains.
“I was out in Colorado and I was living the life I’d been dreaming about for many years,” Bentley said in a late May phone interview. “I was back in the mountains biking, skiing, hiking, fishing and camping. I wasn’t interested in music at all.”
That all changed later in 2020 when Thomas Rhett and his family came to town to meet up with the Bentleys for a hike and a visit.
“He’d been working on music a lot, and he started playing me his record,” Bentley recalled. “I was like ‘Holy crap! This guy’s been busy.’ I haven’t been doing anything and he’s been out there writing songs. Maybe I should start thinking about getting something out there.”
But if there were any concerns that the several months in Colorado enjoying family time and his love of the outdoors had dulled Bentley’s passion for music — or his willingness to put in the work it takes to maintain the high standard he’s set with his craft — those went out the window once Bentley picked back up his guitar and started forming his next musical statement.
By late in 2020, the wheels were in motion for a project that would turn into quite the odyssey on its way to becoming “Gravel and Gold,” the album Bentley released in February.
“At the end of ’20, I picked the guitar back up and started doing some writing retreats and having people come out to Colorado (for songwriting),” Bentley said. “Anyway, long story short, I was collecting songs, and felt pretty good about it, and I came back to Nashville and went into the studio, and back here it was still masks on and COVID testing in the studio. And trying to make a record wearing masks, it’s not really an enjoyable experience. I was waiting for that little last bit that makes albums magic. It’s kind of an intangible thing that you can’t put your finger on…I just felt like the record was just missing a little magic.”
So Bentley scrapped the session, wrote more songs and returned to the studio awhile later, after COVID protocols had been eased.
“So I went back in and cut six songs. That was really fun,” he said. “But I felt like that session, it was really good at capturing a certain sound, but I wasn’t able to capture the whole sound I was thinking of.”
As that realization took hold, Bentley figured out what the album was trying to become and he set about taking a third run at making the album.
“I was like OK, I’m making my 10th album. What this album needs to be is a collection of my greatest sounds, not greatest hits. I want to write all new songs, but make sure I capture all of the different sounds I’ve been associated with,” he said. “I’m really happy with the way it turned out.”
In the end, “Gravel and Gold” indeed fulfills the goal of showcasing the multiple styles of music – including contemporary country, traditional country and bluegrass — Bentley has woven into his music in a recording career that began 20 years ago with the release of his self-titled debut album.
That 2003 album put Bentley on the map with his first No. 1 country single, “What Was I Thinkin’” — and the hits have kept coming ever since. Eighteen of his songs have topped either “Billboard” magazine’s Hot Country or Country Airplay singles chart (with four of those singles going No. 1 on both of those charts), while seven of Bentley’s 10 albums have topped “Billboard’s” country album chart.
Bentley is finding room to play several songs from the new album in his shows this summer alongside plenty of his hits. He’s even incorporating an appearance from Hot Country Knights, Bentley’s high spirited ‘90s country side band that was supposed to tour in 2020 before the pandemic scuttled those plans. It’s also a big show visually, with a stage design that includes a video wall with footage that Bentley said has “unbelievable” depth and detail.
“It looks like a physical backdrop,” he said. “It looks like steel or it looks like a wooden barn or it looks like Colorado in the middle of the mountains. It’s mind boggling, the technology.”
The production isn’t cheap, but Bentley is fully on board with the investment.
“I always want to tour like it’s the last time I’m going to do it,” he said. “It’s one of those sets that my manager is like ‘You’re not really going to make any money until next year if we build this set.’ I’m like ‘I want this thing to be awesome. These venues we’re playing, there are 12 other bands coming up behind us or before us. I want our shows to stick out.”