by Sheldon Birnie
Dustin Bentall is an award winning songwriter off of the West Coast of British Columbia. Since the early Oughts, he’s been travelling hard across the Hillbilly Highway, churning out a couple albums worth of solid storytelling songs about drifters, gunfighters, and guitar slingers. On his recent EP, Orion, Bentall has finally locked down a solid band at his back. With the Smokes in tow, Bentall, son of Canadian folk-rock hero Barney Bentall, is rolling into town with Lindi Ortega to take the Park Theatre by storm.
From a hotel in Nashville, I spoke with Bentall about the new record, (which includes a beauty of a tune about Smokes guitarist Del Cowsill’s father, the legendary Billy Cowsill), songwriting, and the state of Canadian country music today. What follows is our edited, though more-or-less complete, conversation.
Stylus: So you’re in Nashville tonight?
Dustin Bentall: We’re playing the Hi-Watt. We played Atlanta last night, so the second show on this tour. We’re rocking Nashville tonight, it’s pretty exciting.
Stylus: For sure. I guess we’ll talk about the band you’re touring and recording with these days, the Smokes. How did that band come about? You were the Dustin Bentall Outfit before…
DB: Essentially just right after we finished that record, we recorded it with Pat Stewart on drums and he wasn’t able to hit the road with us for the kind of touring we had booked. It was like right after we finished it, and released that album under that name, the band sort of changed. We never really felt comfortable calling ourselves that. So we sort of always hemmed and hawed about it and never really liked that we were being called that. We made this new record and wanted to put a name on it and hit the road.
Stylus: The new, or relatively new record [Orion], is a nice little EP. What made you want to go that route rather than releasing a full length?
DB: It was sort of more born out of circumstance and necessity than anything. We’d intended to make a full album, and had recorded a full album. We just, before we could finish it we had to hit the road again, and one thing after another was delaying it. So we needed to release something. So in the fall we decided to just put out half the record, and in April we’ll release the other half as an EP, and in the summer we’re going to put it all together and put it out on vinyl. We’ll combine the two digitally, so it’ll be a full album online and have it available on vinyl as well, which will be super, super fun.
Stylus: There’s some great songwriting on the EP. I wanted to ask you about a couple of the tunes. The song “Emmylou” is a favourite of mine, can you tell me a bit about the writing of that one, or how you came up with it?
DB: I was just sitting in my apartment a few years ago, and … sorry, just one second … Sorry. I’ve got the guys hauling all my stuff… I was just sitting in my apartment and I was just remembering that day when I was working construction. We’d just finished up and it was a particularly dreadful day of work renovating this bathroom in a printing plant, a printing press. We finished early, that last day, so I was working with my brother and his friend, and I was underage, I wasn’t old enough to get into the bars. But the friend said, “Let’s take Dust to the NBI!” I didn’t know what they were even talking about. My brother was like “I don’t know… Well, Ok.” So we peel off to the North Burnaby Inn and we go inside and it was just, it was my first time going to a strip club. I was just thinking how that’s probably something that so many younger brothers have done as well. I thought it was kind of funny, and thought I should just put it into a song. It didn’t even take as long as it takes to sing it to write it, it just came out really quick.
Stylus: That’s a great tune. The other one I wanted to ask you about is “The Ballad of Billy Cowsill.” That’s a bit of a music history number. How did you come up with that one?
DB: I’ve always been a huge fan of the Blue Shadows, and more and more every time I listen to their record On the Floor Of Heaven. Billy’s just a larger than life character, and his story is just so wild. When Del [Cowsill, Billy’s son] moved out to Toronto, a guy who worked for CMT gave him this interview he’d done with Billy out in Calgary. So, I went out there and I was staying at Del’s place. He was off at work, so I popped in this DVD and watched it. I learnd a whole bunch of stuff about Billy that I didn’t realize, that I didn’t know. Like that he’d lived on the streets in New York back in the 70s. It was really heavy. The stories were really great. There’s a bunch of footage of Billy and his pal Tim Leacock in Billy’s house in Calgary, just playing songs. It just really knocked me out, hearing him talk.
It was pretty intense. Being in a band with Del, his dad had passed away a few years before. It was all just really heavy. I was watching that interview that sparked the song, I started writing it right after. Then I went out to Nova Scotia to write with Jay Smith, who plays in Matt Mays band. I’ve always loved his writing. We wrote a couple songs out there. At the end of one of the nights, I got showing him stuff on YouTube of Billy, and he was just floored, watching him sing and stuff. I told him, “I got a bit of a song started.” I played him what I had and we got working on the song. We got it pretty far. When I got back home, I played it for Kendal, and she added a few things and really helped finish it off.
Stylus: You’re on tour with Lindi Ortega right now, and you’ve co-written and played with a lot of Canadian artists over the years. What do you think of, say, the current “state” of Canadian country music?
DB: One thing I could say is I think Lindi Ortega owns it. She’s such the real deal. Being in the van with her, being on stage with her every night of this tour… I think she’s doing such a cool thing. There’s a lot of country music coming out that’s just really, it just seems like it comes in a can. Lindi, she’s doing her thing and she’s come down to Nashville and really got to understand the grit and meet some really great people down here. The songs she’s written are really world class. I can’t say enough good things about her. She’s really following her heart and doing something that’s really solid.
Stylus: I’m working on another piece right now. You have a song on Corin Raymond’s new album, Paper Nickels, that you co-wrote with Ridley Bent, “Nine Inch Nails.” What do you think of that kind of wacky way of putting out a record, crowd-sourcing by way of Canadian Tire money?
DB: I think it’s so cool. Corin’s such an interesting and quirky guy. I was just so happy for him when the story started to come out, and how much press he’s getting over it. I’m such a huge fan of his. I couldn’t be happier. I think it’s so funny the way it’s all happened. To throw in a story of my own, I was out in Sarnia a while ago, playing a house concert with some friends. They had a separate jar at the house for like donations of Canadian Tire money. It had gone so far afield that even there they knew I was friends with him, so they put out the word that if anyone wanted to bring some Canadian Tire money, to bring it and they’d send it with me back to Toronto. I think it’s creative. It’s real hard to make money playing music these days. I think people are having to get creative and I think his stories is one of the most creative. I’m super proud of him and happy that he’s followed through with the whole project.
Stylus: Ok. Final question here. You’ve been through Winnipeg plenty of times over the years. What do you think of when you think of Winnipeg?
DB: I have so many great friends in Winnipeg, I’ve had so many great times. I’m really excited to play in the Park Theatre. I’ve never been but I’ve heard great things about it. It’s always such a fun time. It’s such a fun music city. There are so many great players and songwriters that have always and continue to come out of that town. I’m definitely thinking of connecting with some old pals. It’s going to be fun to whoop it up and go to the Times Change(d). That’s the best bar in Canada. So I’m excited.
Head down to the Park Theatre this Valentine’s Day for your chance to see Dustin Bentall & The Smokes and Lindi Ortega. Hurry on down. There are only a few tickets left at the door, so don’t dawdle.