Hillbilly Highway – Fun night with Dierks

by Sheldon Birnie

Last Thursday I went to see the Dierks Bentley show at the Burt. Boy, was it something else.

Babes out-numbered good ol’ boys two to one; plaid shirts outnumbered westerns’ three or four to one; back-wards ballcaps to Stetsons ten to one, at least. The place was full, but not bursting. The tops of some of the ladies in the front row, screeching for Dierks the whole time, sure were though.

Everyone was double-fisting Budweisers or rye & cokes. Bathrooms were filled with piss. I didn’t smell marijuana on anyone, only Axe body spray and too much hair-product. I recognized only one guy in the crowd, and he was being paid to work security.

Oh well, I figured. Buy the ticket, take the ride. Only this ticket I hadn’t bought, but received as a distinguished member of the press. Same difference, right?

Right. Now, I’m not big on modern country. Sure, I’ll cruise the FM dials if I’m out on the Highway, but beyond a passing familiarity with big shots like Kenny Chesney or Brad Paisley, I couldn’t tell the difference between almost any of these stars. Sure, I knew Dierks Bentley’s name, but that was about all, beyond one interesting allegation that popped up recently online.

A songwriter and guitar-slinger that I’m partial to, Jason Isbell, noted that the chorus of Dierks’ latest hit, the heartwrencher “Home,” shares a remarkable similarity to the chorus of his own track “Razor Town” from Isbell’s 2007 album Sirens of the Ditch. Upon listening to the two myself, there was an undeniable similarity. In fact, the melodies are identical. Intentional or no, now that’s another story. Dierks operates on the higher commercial plane of the Nashville establishment, while Isbell is still slugging it out on the relatively independent “alt”-country circuit, releasing his own excellent albums, and guesting on guitar for pals of his like Justin Townes Earle and Ryan Adams.

One prominent Americana blogger made the astute observation that, intentional or not, this latest “coincidence” fuels a theory of his that independent operators in the country field are consistently acting like Research & Development branches of the Nashville Establishment. In short, interesting ideas, sounds, arrangements, etc are tested at this “lower” level, where greater attention to songwriting as a craft is paid than as a means to an economic hit; where performance is more of a means of communicating and sharing craft than as spectacle.

And Dierks show was certainly a spectacle. Impressive light show, tight band, and well developed stage show and personality made the whole thing downright enjoyable. I was grinning like all the other drunk fools by the end, my initial trepidation washed away by my third trip to the bar.

The ladies loved it, the good ol’ boys dug it. I doubt there were more than a handful in the crowd who left unsatisfied with the evening. I won’t go so far as to say that Dierks’ Country and Cold Cans show made a believer out of me, but I can’t deny that I had some fun that night. Maybe a little too much, even. And why the hell not?

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