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Country Star Maverick: Dierks Bentley, the Traveling McCourys, and Hayes Carll at Rams Head Live, May 19

May 21, 2010

When Dierks Bentley took the stage Wednesday night, trebly cries erupted, as if the young women who dominated the audience couldn’t believe they were seeing one of country music’s biggest stars in a club as small as Rams Head Live. With his curly, carrot-colored hair and long, lean frame in a dark blue T-shirt and well-worn jeans, Bentley sang “Free and Easy (Down the Road),” one of his seven No. 1 country singles. The crowd belted out the lyrics with him, not just on the chorus, but also on every verse.

Bentley was counting on that reaction, for he was taking one of the biggest gambles ever seen on Nashville’s risk-averse Music Row. He was about to release a bluegrass album, Up on the Ridge, and he was touring with a bluegrass band, the Traveling McCourys (the four-fifths of the Del McCoury Band without that band’s namesake). He’s not the first country star to make a bluegrass album, but he’s the first to do it in the past 20 years while he’s still on top of the charts—Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, and the rest did it only after they’d fallen out of the Top 40.

“If you don’t like the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and upright bass,” Bentley told his fans, “you’ve come to the wrong show, because you’re going to hear a lot of them tonight.” Jason Carter played a hot fiddle intro, and Bentley sang “Fiddlin’ Around” from Up on the Ridge (to be officially released June 8, but on sale at Rams Head). He sounded quite comfortable with one of the best bluegrass bands in the world, because he had befriended them when he first came to Nashville from Phoenix, long before he had a record contract. Bentley’s tenor is more warm and comfortable than it is high and lonesome, but he handled the string-band cadences with relaxed confidence.

The band adapted just as easily to Bentley’s mainstream country hits. Supplemented by Bentley’s regular drummer and pedal-steel guitarist, the Traveling McCourys gave the necessary oomph to uptempo numbers like “How Am I Doin’.” Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin chop underscored the dance beat on “Sideways,” and Rob McCoury’s Scruggs-style banjo greased the momentum of “Feel That Fire.” Jon Randall Stewart, who produced and co-wrote Up on the Ridge, is not part of Bentley’s current tour, but he had flown in for a few dates. The former member of Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers picked and sang two songs with his pal: the new disc’s “Draw Me a Map” and Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider.” The opening act, Hayes Carll, got up to help Bentley lead the crowd in a sing-along on George Strait’s “All My Exes Live in Texas.”

So it went all night, as Bentley astutely alternated hit songs and new bluegrass numbers. You could hear the audience’s attention drift off into chatter during the latter, but the singer always pulled them right back. The inattentive listeners were making a big mistake, for Up on the Ridge is the best album Bentley has ever made, not because it’s a bluegrass project, but because it represents the funniest, saddest, and most joyful music he’s ever made.

In the opening set, Carll performed a similar juggling act as he, too. tried to balance his most accessible numbers with his most personal. For Carll, though, his favorite songs come not from bluegrass but from the Texas singer-songwriter tradition. One of his songs that did win over a good portion of the crowd was “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” which he co-wrote with Texas legend Ray Wylie Hubbard. Carll also commanded some attention in his duet with bassist Bonnie Whitmore on “A Lover Like You” and on his rocking set closer “Down the Road Tonight.” He had less luck with his more subtle numbers, such as “Beaumont” and Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.”

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