Sunday, 26 October, 2008 9:49 PM
One Fan, One Vote (CMA)
by George Holtz
Nashville recording artist Dierks Bentley
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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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