But so what? Like an actor playing a role, great country singers inhabit their songs and make them sound like they’re living it all right before your ears. When it works, it feels Oscar-worthy. When it doesn’t, it feels suspect, like a politician doling out sweet nothings on the stump.
Dierks Bentley is a great country singer.
“Home,” out Tuesday, is his seventh and most assured album, with the 36-year-old Arizona native singing from an array of vantage points with a sure-footedness that wasn’t always totally there. He’s penned a few goofy party anthems over the years, but with the indelible gallop of “Am I the Only One,” you can finally taste the beer. Elsewhere, he’s a homesick family man, a nine-to-fiver pining for escape and a jilted lover in denial.
Bentley says it’s no act. “I’ve been the guy who had the broken heart where your hair falls out in the shower,” he says. “With country music, you have to be a little older and have gone through life. I can hear great singers who have never had their heart broken. I can hear it right away.”
Lounging on his tour bus outside the Recher Theatre in Towson, Md., on Super Bowl Sunday afternoon, Bentley is on the road promoting an album that has to please a wide swath of fans without sacrificing conviction. After 2010’s “Up on the Ridge,” Bentley’s stellar, bluegrass-y left turn of a record, “Home” steers things back toward the pop charts. Unlike most of Bentley’s previous albums, this one finds the singer doing what so many of his peers do — tapping into Music Row.
Nashville songwriters supply six of the 12 songs, giving Bentley new roles to play, but ones that he thinks reflect his true self. “The fans love the songs,” he says. “If you wrote it, great. If you didn’t, whatever.”
What mattered was Bentley’s tenacity in injecting himself into those songs, says producer Luke Wooten, who has been working with Bentley for the singer’s entire professional career. “I don’t know that he ever sleeps,” Wooten says. “If he’s got production ideas, you may get a text at 2:30 in the morning.”
That drive helped Bentley get a leg up when he arrived in Nashville in 1994. The singer remembers being 18 years old and struggling to navigate an industry town suddenly swarming with Wrangler-and-Stetson clones hoping to become the next Garth Brooks. The disillusionment was almost instantaneous.
“It was like seeing the wizard behind the curtain,” he remembers. “It lost a little of its magic.”
He found a different kind of magic when a friend dragged him to the Station Inn, the bluegrass club where Bentley fell under the spell of banjos, fiddles and mandolins. He still endeavored to make popular country songs in the mold of Hank Williams Jr. and Merle Haggard, but he made a point to pepper each album with a little bluegrass.
Success followed. Three of Bentley’s albums have topped the country charts, while two others came very close. That’s what made “Up on the Ridge” feel like such a gutsy move — one that Bentley says he had to make after spending 2009 on a tour that seemed never-ending.
“We’d be onstage for 45 minutes, and we had a really tight show,” Bentley says. “But the other 23 hours and 15 minutes of my life that year felt stifling. I was in the back in the bus thinking about how I need to do something different. . . . [“Up on the Ridge”] was totally off the grid with no rules at all.”
Bentley didn’t want to lose that feel with “Home” — so much so that he scrapped the first version of the album. “I realized that the record we made had gotten too far away from ‘Up on the Ridge,’ ” he says. “You can’t put acoustic [instruments] on afterwards. It sounds fake. . . . I had to get it right.”
The album-closing ballad “Thinking of You” got its finishing touches when Bentley visited the District in November — it was his birthday, and his family had e-mailed him a video of his 2-year-old daughter singing the song’s refrain: “Thinking of you, that’s all I do, all the time / You’re always the first and last thing on this heart of mine.”
“I was lonesome,” Bentley says. “I hate hotel rooms. You’re alone, and there are a thousand other lonely people who have been there before you. And here’s my daughter singing the song back to me. It killed me.” He decided to add it as the album’s coda. A longing ballad was now a love song from a road-weary father to his faraway child.
The next day, Bentley performed the song “Home,” an understated and elegant ode to America, at a country music celebration at the White House. He says he was inspired to write a song that expressed togetherness after the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — as well as the distribution of campaign materials that targeted Democratic lawmakers’ congressional districts by superimposing crosshairs on a map.
“Nasty stuff,” Bentley says, shaking his head. He points his thumb over his shoulder at the line of fans waiting outside the tour bus. “But if you look out there, I think we have a lot more in common than what divides us.”
In two hours, he’ll be singing “Home” onstage at the Recher, standing at the rare intersection of post-Sept. 11 patriotism and humility. It’s a performance that could only come from someone who took the time to get it right.
“Trying to get those emotions through the speakers,” Bentley says. “That’s country music.”