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Entertainment News

Sunday, 26 October, 2008 9:49 PM

One Fan, One Vote (CMA)

Photo by George Holtz

Capitol Nashville recording artist Dierks Bentley

By Holly Gleason
© 2008 CMA Close Up News Service

It's two hours before he's scheduled to hit the stage in Albuquerque, N.M., and Dierks Bentley wields a Sharpie and a smile. He's surrounded by about 20 people, each of them a member of "the Congress," the community of hardcore Bentley fans, who are joining the singer/songwriter for an extended visit before the more traditional sponsor and radio meet-and-greet.

"There are those fans who are really engaged," said Bentley, whose Greatest Hits / Every Mile a Memory 2003-2008 was basically executive-produced by his fans through their vote on tracks, title and the cover. "And the idea that I can give a handful of them a meaningful time to really talk about whatever, it keeps my connection to the people I'm making this music for real."

Bentley, who was recently named one of the "25 Fittest Guys in America" by Men's Fitness magazine and is the newest addition to Anheuser Busch's award-winning "Real Men of Genius" national advertising campaign, launched Greatest Hits / Every Mile a Memory 2003-2008 with an extended series of "house concerts" and unplugged radio station events in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, Greenville, N.C., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia and Seattle.

"It lets me reach as many as personally as possible," he explained. "To play for free during the day for the fan club, and then to have the radio station pick a winner, and you go to someone's backyard or living room, that puts you right in the heart of it."

The extraordinary story behind this album sprang to life during his meeting with some Capitol Records Nashville executives who suggested they issue a greatest hits collection.

"The first thing he said was, 'There's nothing special about your typical greatest hits package,'" recalled Dustin Eichten, Director of Marketing, Capitol Records Nashville. "He wanted to find a way we could tie the fans into it, and we came up with this idea of signing up 3,000 people to vote on the cover art, potential live tracks and even the title. Then those 3,000 fans would have their names printed in the booklet. That way, the whole project became as much about the fans as it is about Dierks."

Capitol assembled those 3,000 fans by first e-mailing members of Bentley's fan club and inviting them to log onto their password-accessible section of www.dierks.com, where they could register on a first-come, first-served basis to take part in the project. After 24 hours that same notice was posted on the Web site's main page. Identities of the final group were announced by Bentley in April, during an online "town hall meeting."

Each of the 3,000 fans was sent a selection of around 10 possible album titles, five cover images and all of his live tracks. Votes were cast, after which Bentley and his label went as promised with the winning selections. Participants were invited to pre-order the album, with most of the proceeds donated to the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Taking this ride a little further, Bentley launched a two-week promotional tour that combined meeting fans and doing radio station interviews during the day and then following with concerts in the backyards - or, in Indianapolis, the living room - of one fan and a few friends. "They were pretty special," said Eichten, who attended each of these intimate shows. "Dierks would show up, play for 30 or 40 minutes, sign autographs and hang out for a couple of hours. We didn't invent the backyard concert, but no artist at the level of Dierks Bentley had ever taken it this far."

It's that connection that gives this artist the freedom to blaze his own somewhat unconventional trail. "You have to say 'no' a lot," he said. "And it's difficult, because everybody wants the brass ring - a sold-out show, stadiums. But you also have to recognize that you need to be true to who and what you are. You do something not because it worked but because it's right, and the fans realize that difference."

As a fan, Bentley felt the power both of what's right and what works when he attended a Garth Brooks show in Phoenix. "Country was happening, but I couldn't tell you who all was there," he said. "All I saw was him."
That experience proved pivotal as Bentley pursued his idea of using his concerts to strengthen bonds with his fans. "To me, it's simple: tour, tour, tour. Go where no band has gone before. A lot of my education - what works, what doesn't - comes from the road, trying to be the best front man I can be and send the fans home entertained."

It's also about walking the line between artistic and commercial merit. The album features 17 tracks: Bentley's 10 Top 10 and No. 1 radio hits, two new songs and five live versions taped from concerts at Bonnaroo, the Fillmore and "Austin City Limits" among others. Many of his familiar songs, including "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)," "Lot of Leavin' Left to Do" and "Settle for a Slowdown," cast a postmodern drifter spin on an America weighted down by pressures to show up, achieve and fulfill, all of which stirred enough listeners to earn this 2005 CMA Horizon Award winner three Gold and two Platinum album certifications.

"I always went after the dudes who look like me and the girls who hung with them," he explained. "We spend a lot of time playing colleges, and there are older fans who know I know the history, bluegrassers who come because they relate to what we're doing - and the Texas audience can tell we're something different. All of those people may not have a lot in common, except they love songs and music."

The point is that Bentley, whose friends range from Ronnie McCoury to members of Pearl Jam, embraces all that Country has to offer. "I'm looking for great songs for me, not necessarily hits," he explained. "I passed on 'Whiskey Lullaby' and I knew it was a great song. But I'm trying to do something that's me, who I am - and in that, who my fans are too."

By identifying himself that closely with the listeners who have lifted him from the Lower Broadway clubs and into the limelight, Bentley taps into the essence of Country Music celebrity, which means staying grounded in tradition even while reaching toward the stars. It begins, in his own words, with "being down at the Station Inn, where it's all about the instruments and the music and the vocals. It's Country and bluegrass, history and roots. And it's a place where you watch people building their career, learning the craft of making music and making a living making music."

In tune with his fans and his own sense of self, Bentley is poised somewhere between Waylon Jennings' outsider heroism, Kris Kristofferson's rumpled poetry and the flash of Kenny Chesney. "I relate to what he's doing," Bentley said of Chesney, his former tour-mate, "in that sickness of wanting it to always be better, being obsessed to where you wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about set design or a lighting cue. But where he really stands out is doing something that is so specific to him. I had a clear vision too. I was going to write the songs. Brett [Beavers] was going to produce. The songs were going to be true to me, where I was and how I was living."

That's simpler and more complicated than it seems. "I don't do things nobody else ever has," he conceded, laughing. "We're a touring band. I'm a working musician. I write songs, I pay attention and I'm willing to take my time if it means building it. This is and always has been about the music and the people who love music. If we start there, then we're building something that will last."

On the Web: www.dierks.com

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