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Dierks Bentley Leaves Big Country For Bluegrass

With seven No. 1 country hits, six Grammy nominations and two platinum albums, singer Dierks Bentley is a bona fide star. His fifth album, Up on the Ridge, will be a surprise to some fans: It's entirely acoustic, and finds Bentley digging deep into bluegrass.

Bentley arrived in Nashville with dreams of stardom. It was the mid-'90s, the era of arena-rocking acts like Garth Brooks. But Bentley was drawn to The Station Inn, a small stand-alone club in a marginal neighborhood where a group called The Sidemen played every Tuesday night. The Sidemen were the backup band for bluegrass legend Del McCoury, including Del's sons, Ronnie and Rob. At the time, Bentley thought bluegrass was for old folks, but the musicians he started hanging around with taught him otherwise. Up on the Ridge pays tribute to those early influences.

The title track is about leaving the city lights of Nashville behind and heading for a rural retreat. But it's also a metaphor for stepping outside of mainstream country -- known for big money and glittering awards ceremonies -- and getting back to the roots of the music. Bentley enlisted his old friends in The Sidemen to play on Up on the Ridge, along with Alison Krauss and mandolinist Sam Bush.

Up on the Ridge is Bentley's first all-acoustic CD. It isn't big country -- or even alternative country -- and it isn't bluegrass. But defining music is usually more important to record labels than to musicians. Bentley proves this by recruiting McCoury -- a master at rearranging rock songs to make them sound like they were born bluegrass -- and the genre-bending Punch Brothers, to help him reimagine a song by U2, "Pride."

Bentley took a risk on this album by leaving the paradigm of commercial country music, a world in which he's enjoyed great success. By drawing from influences like honky-tonk and bluegrass, Bentley shows that artists can sound as timeless as the older records that inspired him. And the funny thing about country music is that the best way to go forward is to go backward.

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Meredith Ochs