Several years ago, Dierks Bentley was taken aback when one of his team members told him his concerts made him the center point in a big party.
He has plenty of fun stuff to draw from in building set lists — “5-1-5-0,” “Somewhere on a Beach,” “Drunk on a Plane” and “What Was I Thinkin’,” for starters — but he’d always thought of himself as a serious musician with something to say. That conversation was one of those moments when the push and pull of his introspective private self and cheerleading public role crystallized, and it’s a dual purpose he continues to balance.
“We’re all looking for the raw emotions, the connection with the singer, the connection with fellow fans, and so that mode’s very real,” he says of his onstage identity. “But off the stage, that’s just not who I am. I’d rather be up on a mountain by myself, just alone. I really do appreciate being alone, or with my wife or my family, but just having real conversations and watching sunsets and sunrises and just looking for those moments that really make you feel like you’re connected to something deeper.”
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With his latest single, Bentley found “Something Real” in the mountains of Telluride, Colo., when he hosted a songwriting camp circa 2018 with four fellow writers: HARDY, Ashley Gorley (“Last Night,” “Girl in Mine”), Luke Dick (“Burning Man,” “Settling Down”) and Ross Copperman (“Dancin’ in the Country,” “Gold”). It was early winter, and Bentley engaged in some real-life pursuits during that four-day retreat, including hikes and a trip to a ski slope with Dick, who admits he was challenged.
“What good is being in Telluride if you’re inside the four walls?” Dick asks rhetorically. “I hadn’t been skiing in forever, and he put me in past my comfort zone, which is funny, because he’s pretty much a local up there now. He’s not going to ski with the novices, or even the intermediates. He’s off doing the crazy stuff.”
In the less-dangerous arena, Bentley woke up at his home one morning and worked up a few ideas over French roast coffee. He hopped over to the house where the other writers were staying, with a now-forgotten title built around the word “real.” Whatever that title was, it reconstructed as “Something Real,” and they used it to explore the dichotomies in Bentley’s existence — aiming to do it in a way that could be felt by the audience.
With five A-list writers participating, the process involved some chaos. Copperman and Dick tended to focus more on the music, Gorley and HARDY — who snapped out the chorus’ opening image, “I need a little backbone in my backbeat” — keyed in on the lyrics, though all of them jumped around a bit to different aspects of the song and to different stanzas.
The opening verse found arena-headliner Bentley longing for an easier, less-cluttered lifestyle, which is part of the attraction in Telluride.
“I love living somewhere small, you know, with no stoplights,” he says. “There’s so much accountability living in a small town because you see these people two, three times a day. You can’t be a jerk, you can’t not respond to a text message because you’re going to literally see them at the post office. You have to be responsive, you have to be kind; you have real conversations.”
In one of the most revealing sections, he cited one of the hurdles of commercial music, lamenting that he “can’t really pour my heart out on the FM radio,” adding that deeper songs “won’t fill up the coliseum on the edge of Tupelo,” a line that — once again — was shaped by Mississippi-born HARDY.
Bentley wasn’t complaining in that moment, but actively seeking to be challenged: “Give me something that’ll burn I can turn into something I can feel.” The challenge was to dig deep in life, but also to dig deep in a song and still make something commercial.
“[Songwriter] Tom Douglas said something about songs that make you remember and songs that make you forget,” Dick recalls. “Most of the songs that are hits are songs that make you forget. What is it making you forget? The idea that loneliness exists at all, and it’s rare that a song that is making you remember that loneliness exists and that it’s OK to be in it.”
Dick and Copperman built the demo, which featured HARDY’s voice. Bentley tried to record “Something Real” three different times — the last at Addiction Studios in Berry Hill, Tenn. — before he found what he was looking for, a performance with a distinct U2 vibe, thanks to searing electric guitar work from Jedd Hughes and more intricate notes enhanced by a delay pedal. The track stacks five guitarists total, including Dan Dugmore, better known as a steel guitarist.
“One of my favorite things to do with Dan when we’re in the studio is to ask him to play electric,” says producer-engineer F. Reid Shippen (Toby Keith, Ingrid Michaelson). “He’s fantastic at it. He plays rock electric like a super-enthusiastic 14-year-old who just doesn’t make mistakes.”
Shippen also took some of Danny Rader’s off-the-cuff banjo noodling and fit it into the mix to provide some country texture amid the U2 sonics.
Late in the game, Jon Randall (Parker McCollum, Miranda Lambert) became the track’s fourth producer, along with Bentley and Copperman. He was called in, he says, to “sprinkle the Americana, or the hippie-trippy stuff, or the ear candy.” Randall focused primarily on the bridge, where the song’s deepest message — “I’m just looking for some truth” — provides its apex.
“More than anything, I think I really just came up with some ideas to build that bridge, so the bridge would be really, really huge and hit hard,” Randall says. “There’s some guitars, percussion things, building to this moment.”
At that “truth” climax, the whole thing breaks down with Bentley and HARDY — who came back in to add harmonies — delivering the message with clarity. “I think that really took it over the top,” Shippen says.
Capitol Nashville released “Something Real” to country radio through PlayMPE on June 12 as the second single from Gravel & Gold, providing deceptively thoughtful perspective in an intensely commercial sonic framework. It’s not unprecedented in Bentley’s career: He has enhanced his reputation with such from-the-soul titles as “Home,” “I Hold On” and “Come a Little Closer.”
“I found when I put songs out that are really personal, there’s a deeper connection because we’re all the same,” Bentley says. “We’re all going through the same struggles, and I feel like the song will connect in that way. It’s going to be a little slower rise to get there. I’ve had other songs that might have been quicker out of the gate, but I feel like this one will have a really important impact on people that listen to it and move them in a deeper way.”