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Dierks Bentley: Up on the Ridge

Track List

>Up on the Ridge
>Fallin' for You
>Señor (Tales of Yankee Power) - (featuring Chris Thile/Punch Brothers)
>Rovin' Gambler
>Draw Me a Map
>Bad Angel - (featuring Jamey Johnson)
>Fiddlin' Around
>You're Dead to Me
>Pride (In the Name of Love) - (featuring Del McCoury)
>Love Grows Wild
>Bottle to the Bottom - (featuring Kris Kristofferson)
>Down in the Mine

Album Remarks & Appraisals:

Up on the Ridge is the fifth studio album by American country music artist, Dierks Bentley, released on June 8, 2010, via Capitol RecordsNashville. The album's second single, "Draw Me a Map" was released to radio on August 23, 2010.

The album debuted at number nine on the U.S. Billboard 200, number two on the U.S. Billboard Top Country Albums chart, and at number one on the U.S. Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart, selling nearly 39,000 copies in its' first week of release. As of December 4, the album has sold 175,996 copies in the US.

"Dierks Bentley has worked hard to build his artistic cachet over the course of his career, and the result is that Up on the Ridge includes a simply extraordinary roster of collaborators. Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Tim O'Brien, Sonya Isaacs, and Chris Stapleton (formerly of the Steeldrivers) all provide expert harmony vocals, and Miranda Lambert, Jamey Johnson, Del McCoury, Kris Kristofferson, and the Punch Brothers all perform proper duets. With that kind of a lineup, it isn't a stretch to say he might be the least talented person on his own album.

That isn't meant as a slight against Bentley. He may not have the broadest vocal range or most powerful voice, but Bentley is an effective, thoughtful singer who's smart enough to know his own limitations. On their surprising cover of U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)," Bentley wisely lets McCoury use his plaintive mountain tenor to hit the high notes in the chorus while he handles the song's verses with both restraint and genuine pathos. Bentley is even better on rowdier cuts like "Rovin' Gambler" and the forceful title track, and his tongue-in-cheek phrasing brings a bit of levity to standouts like the bitter "You're Dead to Me" and the randy "Fiddlin' Around."

Still, as strong as his own performances are, Bentley is often upstaged by his cohorts. His reading of Bob Dylan's "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)" is pensive and melancholy, but Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek and presently of the Punch Brothers, is a more demonstrative, emotional singer. The highlight of the set is "Bad Angel," a lighthearted song about half-assed attempts to shrug off vices. Bentley sells his verse about smoking just fine, but Johnson's consideration of gambling is rougher and more lived-in, and Lambert just flat-out kills her lines about drinking and provides deft high harmonies in the song's chorus. (A year's worth of touring in large venues in support of acts like Brad Paisley has given Lambert's voice a sexy rasp that is perfectly matched to just about everything she sings, and "Angel" falls right into her considerable wheelhouse.)

If he actively invites some direct comparisons that don't do him any real favors, Bentley can at least be credited for having impeccable taste and an ear for talent. But Ridge isn't just a performers' showcase. The album is also a major rebound for Bentley in terms of his songwriting and song selection after 2009's underwhelming Feel That Fire. The U2 cut is something of a novelty, since the song's impressionistic lyrics don't entirely work in the context of country and bluegrass conventions, but the Dylan cover is spot-on, as are Kristofferson's "Bottle to the Bottom" and Buddy and Julie Miller's lovely "Love Grows Wild."

Bentley, for his part, fully holds his own among such high-caliber songwriters. There isn't a weak song among his five co-writing credits. Album closer "Down in the Mine" borrows some images from Darrell Scott's "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," but its melody is robust. The title track, "Dead," and "Gambler" all help to set the freewheeling tone that carries over into many of the record's performances."Draw Me a Map" is even better, using some unexpected, sharply turned phrases to elevate its central conceit. It's Bentley's finest romantic ballad, and Krauss's understated harmony vocals are predictably superb.

Despite the unimpeachable quality of the performances and the top-notch songwriting, it's Jon Randall Stewart's production that is perhaps the album's best attribute. At a time when so many country albums are losing the loudness war, Stewart gives each of the record's acoustic instruments actual breathing room, resulting in a full-bodied sound that brings a contemporary polish to traditional arrangements.

Up on the Ridge isn't a proper bluegrass album by any stretch of the imagination, despite the exclusive use of acoustic instruments. Instead, it's an example of what modern country music ought to sound like: The fiddles and banjos are placed prominently in the mixes and there isn't a drum machine to be found anywhere. But Bentley and Stewart also recognize the value of a strong hook. And ultimately, it's Up on the Ridge's overall aesthetic that proves Bentley's deep respect for - and his legitimate, intuitive understanding of - country traditions, even as he uses those traditions in forward-thinking, progressive ways." - SlantMagazine

"I'll confess that I've had my reservations about this long-awaited fifth studio album from Dierks Bentley. Originally Dierks and Capitol had planned to release two albums this year - a bluegrass album and a "regular" country album. When it was announced that the plans had been changed, that only one album would be released and that it would be bluegrass-influenced but not exactly "pure" bluegrass, I feared that the label was back-pedaling due to a lack of confidence that bluegrass would sell in today's market. My fears were not allayed with the single release of the somewhat disappointing title track. My main gripe was the overly-processed harmony vocals. I'm not a bluegrass purist; I'm not bothered at all by the inclusion of electric and percussion instruments, but Alison Krauss' usually distinctive voice was unrecognizable and it just sounded out of place on a bluegrass(ish) recording.

It was, therefore, a tremendous relief to hear the remainder of the album, which is a lot closer to what I'd had in mind all along. Dierks is joined by an impressive guest roster of musicians from both the bluegrass and mainstream country communities; Alison Krauss, Ronnie and Del McCoury, The Punch Brothers, Sam Bush, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, and Kris Kristofferson are among the artists lending their talents to the project, which was produced by Jon Randall Stewart, an accomplished musician in his own right.

The album is an interesting mixture of of traditional songs such as "Fiddlin' Around" and "You're Dead To Me" and more progressive fare such as "Fallin' For You" and "Pride (In The Name Of Love)". There are also touches of folk and rock on a reworked version of Bob Dylan's "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" on which Dierks is joined by progressive bluegrass band The Punch Brothers. The Punch Brothers also contributed to the more traditional "Rovin' Gambler" as well as the aforementioned "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" which also features Del McCoury and sounds like something from a SteelDrivers album. There are even some modern classical elements, a Punch Brothers trademark, included on "Pride". The Punch Brothers are a band that I'm going to have to check out more thoroughly in the future.

Bentley shares co-writing credit on five of the album's twelve tracks, four of them with producer Stewart. The remaining songs come mainly from the catalogs of some of Nashville's finest songwriters: Shawn Kemp, Paul Kennerley, Verlon Thompson, Tim O'Brien, Kris Kristofferson and Buddy and Julie Miller. Thompson wrote "Bad Angel" along with Suzi Ragsdale. On this track, Dierks is joined by Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson, who both provide fine vocal performances on one of the best tracks on the album. Kristofferson contributes a characteristically rough duet vocal on his 1969 composition "Bottle To The Bottom". Closing out the album is "Down In The Mine", one of the songs Bentley and Stewart wrote together. It's reminsicent of the often-recorded Merle Travis classic "Dark As A Dungeon." Stewart and Sonya Isaacs provide beautiful harmony vocals. As the song and the album wind down, it just left me wanting more.

The title track is currently at #25 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs Chart. Whether it will gain enough momentum to reach the Top 10 remains to be seen, as does whether or not subsequent singles will chart well. It would be nice to hear some of these songs on the radio; they provide a much-needed antidote to the ubiquitous pop-country currently rulilng the airwaves. In the end, though, I suspect that this may be one of those albums that manages to sell well without a lot of radio support. But regardless of its fate at radio and retail, Up on the Ridge is an excellent example of artistry and an essential purchase for any serious country music fan." - MykindOfCountry

"Dierks Bentley has released four studio albums since signing with Capitol Nashville in 2003 and joining the ranks of country music stardom. However, while each release was good in its own right and had multiple charting singles, there was little if any variety from one album to the next, and Bentley seemed to be stuck in a rut. When it was announced that his next project would be a bluegrass-inspired album, many fans wondered whether or not he'd be able to pull it off.

Bentley assembled a large supporting cast to record Up on the Ridge, collaborating with artists both from the past (in the form of Kris Kristofferson and Del McCoury) as well as the present (Miranda Lambert and the Punch Brothers). Throughout the dozen tracks on the album, Bentley and his cohorts successfully combine those traditional influences with modern sound and production and produce something very unique. Efforts like this are usually hit or miss, and while the end result can definitely not be considered a pure bluegrass record, it shouldn't be considered just a "country" album either.

While not every track from Up on the Ridge is bluegrass-heavy, and the majority of the songs might sound just as good if recorded with the same modern pop-country feel of Bentley's earlier work, in some cases this sound works much better. The tongue-in-cheek humor on tracks like "You're Dead to Me" and "Bottle to the Bottom", both focusing on the theme of love and loss, are a pair of standouts where the upbeat picking and twang meshes perfectly with the lyrics, and if either were heard at a county fair in the 1950s they would seem just as at home then as they do being played through the earbuds of a modern digital music player today. "Rovin' Gambler" is another such track, and "Bad Angel" - with its tale of "... standing at the crossroads of temptation and salvation streets... " - is an instant classic that anyone who has faced a late night/early morning decision as to whether to stay out and roll the dice one more time or to cash in the chips and go home should easily be able to relate to.

In addition to original work, Bentley also performs a number of cover songs on the album. One of these is an exceptionally good rendition of Bob Dylan's "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)", which in its updated form sounds as good - or perhaps even better - than the original. Bentley's take on Buddy Miller's "Love Grows Wild" also sounds right at home on Up on the Ridge. However, while definitely an interesting take on a classic pop song, the inclusion of U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" seems somewhat out of place, and is the only track on the entire album that doesn't fit in with the rest.

At times, the art of thoughtfully composing an album as opposed to just stringing a series of singles together to fill the space seems lost, and perhaps today is really no more or less prevalent than it was during eras when music was released in different formats, but Bentley scores a point in that regard with Up on the Ridge. From start to finish, the album tracks transition well from one to the next (even the U2 cover), starting and ending with two aptly-titled songs - "Up on the Ridge" and "Down in the Mine". Whether this was intentional on Bentley's part or merely a coincidence, it works well, and they serve as perfect bookends for the rest of the tracks on the album.

One of the caveats of being in any creative profession, such as art, design, or in this case, music, is that more often than not one must "pay their dues" first before doing something that he or she really wants to do. From the outset of the album, there is little doubt that Dierks Bentley wanted to break out of the mold and do something a little different with Up on the Ridge. While the same general sound and feel from his previous catalog offerings is still apparent throughout the entire album, Bentley is not afraid to add something else into the mix and he does it very well, walking the thin line between artistic expression and commercial viability with all of the skill of a tightrope walker. His established fans will appreciate his foray into some new territory, and casual fans can use Up on the Ridge as a stepping stone to discover another closely related genre of music." - PopMatters

Album Reviews:

Rolling Stone (p.83) - 3 stars out of 5 -- "[A]n excursion into bluegrass, which jettisons his usual power chords and booming choruses in favor of sawing fiddles and coal-miner ballads."

Entertainment Weekly (p.94) - "[H]ere he goes old-school with a set of acoustic bluegrass jams." -- Grade: B+

Billboard (p.32) - "[F]or lovers of contemporary bluegrass and country music's Appalachian roots, UP ON THE RIDGE is a thrilling ride from start to finish."

Paste (magazine) - "UP ON THE RIDGE comprises ambitious covers executed with modesty and respect, magnanimous co-writes and a loving attention to sonic detail; a true celebration of the state of modern country."

Album Notes

Audio Mixer: Gary Paczosa.

Recording information: Blackbird Studios; Brooklyn Recording; Minutia Sound; Sound Emporium.

Photographer: Danny Clinch.

Nashville crooner Dierks Bentley, a longtime bluegrass fan, recruited the Del McCoury Band, Chris Thile, Sam Bush, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, Miranda Lambert, and Tim O'Brien to help flesh out 2010's Up on the Ridge, adding some exquisite front-porch picking to this collection of bluegrass-tinged originals with Bentley's winning blend of roots rock and country pop. ~ James Christopher Monger


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