I just got done listening to The National for the last three hours or so (which is easy to do on a dreary autumn evening), and suddenly - after a bottle or so of wine - I sort of :: snapped :: up and realized I wanted/needed something upbeat, less heady, and just kind of sort of silly…but still good (at least in some sense). To meet this demand, I turned (for reasons I am not entirely sure of) to 2005-era Dierks Bentley.
Now, before you totally tune out, let’s talk about this.
Before we talk about it, however, let me preface the discussion with the fact that, yes, indeed, a lot of stuff the Big Music Nashville Machine (or whatever the hell you want to call it) churns out is terrible. (Have you heard that Ala-freakin-bama song or whatever by Trace Adkins? Dear god. That thing was born of a place of stupidity and denim that I hope to never ever visit in my life. Christ. What a stupid goddamn song.) At the same time, however, I always :: roll eyes so hard :: at anyone who says “I like all music except country” which is the shallowest and dumbest definition of music tastes possible. I mean, really? Really? Look, Nashville churns out a lot of crap. But so does LA. So does Brooklyn. So does wherever. There is bad pop music. There is bad country music. Christ is there a lot of bad “indie” music or whatever.
But, then, sometimes, there is a track that is good despite its genre. A really goddamn good song that somebody toiled to write and somebody else connected to and decided to sing. And I’ll be damned if that doesn’t happen anywhere and everywhere - even on the most mainstream of outlets. (See, currently: Adele.) Writing off a good song for no good reason is dumb, and I will think you are dumb if you do it and that is just how it has to be.
Now, of course, the above song - Dierks Bentley’s “Lot of Leavin’ Left To Do” - isn’t necessarily one of those songs. It in no way hits the pop perfection levels of, say, a “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (speaking of pop songs cranked out of the Nashville machine and popularized by some adult contemporary icon [don’t even get me started on how much I love Bonnie Raitt] and then repurposed for some indie bonus feature [Justin Vernon, I love you, but you are no Bonnie Raitt]), but there are, I think, some things worth defending here. Some of those things are objectively worth arguing, and some are pretty ad hominem, but it’s Tumblr so who cares…
1. It is a silly, pretty misogynistic song, sure. There is, I think, a self-deprecating edge that Bentley brings to the vocals that blunts some of the misogyny, but, okay fine. You’re right. But….
Let’s ignore the lyrics for a second and admit that, dammit, that is a pretty fuckin’ solid country backing track.* Ignore Dierks and his stupid graphic print shirts and just listen to the interplay between the lead guitar and steel guitar… :: pauses, let’s you listen to these things for a moment :: I KNOW RIGHT? There is some incredibly interesting and complicated stuff going on between those two, especially in the outro. (I like to pretend that they are aware that they are playing on a pretty silly Nashville country song and just decided to have this interesting musical conversation in the background because, what the hell, no one is paying attention anyway.) Sure, it’s not any sort of ground-breaking performance, but it is impressive nonetheless - especially the steel performance. (I do love some solid steel guitar, I do.)
2. I’ve seen Dierks Bentley in concert twice. Both shows, however, were in places that you would not expect me to have seen someone who is, at this point, sort of a big popular country mainstay d-bag or whatever. The first time I saw him was at the Quest, a venue in Minneapolis that was once owned by Prince (and is now some dance venue with a name like…I dunno? SOUND or BEATZ or PULSE! or EPIC or some shit, I have no idea), that was known much more for its slightly shallow alternative and indie lineups (sidenote: I saw Pete Yorn there after musicforthemorningafter came out and it was awesome - oh, and Phantom Planet opened that show and I ended up one of their music videos, NBD) than it was for anything else.
For some reason, though, they booked Dierks Bentley (2nd album DB, before he was really capital Dierks** capital Bentley), and he was, at the time, on tour with Cross Canadian Ragweed (super fun and trashy Texas band btw). What was fun and interesting about this tour was that you had Cross Canadian Ragweed who are just some big loud rootsy Texas homies who wanna to rip some guitar riffs and throw back some Buds paired with an assembled cast of beyond-talented Nashville dudes backing Dierks on one stage under a “High Times and Hangovers Tour” banner.
Now, this show could have easily gone one particular way, and that is CCR (no, not that CCR) shaping up a little bit and pandering to the quasi-family-friendly-ness of the Nashville machine backing Dierks. But, instead, the opposite happened. Instead of staying faithful to the studio tracks, Dierks’ band ripped the living fuck out every song in his then young and sparse catalog; they played from a place that never, ever comes out in this recording. They probably didn’t throw back as much whiskey as the Drive-By Truckers do or nothing, but they certainly made a run for it. And I will be goddamned if it wasn’t one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen. And Dierks? For all his golden-locked goofiness, he really made his way around that stage. And his voice is legit - that guttural country baritone he’s got going on there is the real deal and, man, he proved it in that freakin’ weird venue. (Fwiw. I also saw Nickel Creek play there, which was quite an excellent show, as this was back when they were covering Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” and Nirvana’s “Lithium.” Hearing Sarah Watkins sing “everyone / everyone around here / everyone is so near / what’s going on?” was well worth the price of admission for sure.)
The second time I saw Dierks was at, of all places, Bonnaroo in 2007. He rocked a, like, 3 PM show on a side stage and, while it wasn’t as good as the show at the Quest, was still impressive. He had a bit more of the commercial Nashville machine thing going on (which included, christ, a fucking fake Marshall stack that was actually a fridge full of Bud Light), and he was promoting his cheesier third album around that time. But - again - the dudes on stage backing him picked up on the vibes in the venue and really let loose (it helped that they split the set with Sam Bush, so they got away from his “hits” for a minute). It was worth missing whatever act I was inevitably missing on some other stage somewhere.
The point here is, I guess, if I had written off this guy and his band as the “country” in “I like anything but country" I would have missed some of the more impressive individual performances from musicians that I’ve ever seen in my young life…and some pretty goddamn fun nights/days on top of that.
So, anyway. Those are my thoughts and they were sparked by the silly-ass country song above.***
*On this note, I would gladly pay regular CD prices to acquire a Faith Hill album that did not have Faith Hill on it. I spent a chunk of my early 20s in a country-rock cover band, and this involved - at one point - me having to learn the acoustic guitar part in “Breathe.” And, you know what? I’ll be goddamn if it wasn’t super fun to play, even if I cared nothing for the vocals. While learning this track off the recording, I grew to really love and appreciate what was going on behind Faith Hill’s big dumb why-the-fuck-do-you-sound-like-Kathleen-Turner-during-the-verses? vocal performance. I just wanted to erase her from it and really hear what the peeps in the background were doing.
** After typing his name multiple times now I am really realizing how ridiculous this first name is. But, whatever, I’m not gonna rag on it - it’s a dude’s name. Whaddya gonna do?
*** This post could have also been written about Keith Urban (stupid, stupid, stupid songs, but THAT GUITAR PLAYING JESUS CHIRST) and Brad Paisley (silly [but sometimes silly and good!] songs with unreal instrumental performances - I love watching that dude play a goddamn guitar.)