With three #1 singles and a handful of industry awards to his credit, Dierks Bentley is an ascendant country star, and his third album, Long Trip Alone, is poised to vault the Arizona native to the genre’s A-list. By polishing away most of the roughest edges of its predecessor, 2005’s platinum-selling Modern Day Drifter, the album should succeed in that regard. It’s a pleasant surprise that Long Trip Alone, if not quite up to the level of the best recordings in mainstream country’s recent artistic resurgence, succeeds in establishing Bentley as an artist worthy of more than just passing attention.
While his aspirations to the kind of hard-living tales of vintage Merle Haggard and the rock-leaning outlaw style of Waylon Jennings are still on prominent display, Bentley draws convincingly from his first person experiences—a new marriage, and over 300 days on tour in the last year—to bring a distinct point of view to his songwriting. Compared to those of his contemporaries, Bentley’s tale of fending off the advances of a would-be groupie and of smoking up with one of his idols (on standout “That Don’t Make It Easy Loving Me”) is entirely believable, unlike the recent strident demo-baiting singles like Jake Owen’s “Yee Haw” or Jason Aldean’s “Hicktown.” There’s no earth-shattering insight to the on-the-road chronicles of lead single “Every Mile A Memory” or “Soon As You Can,” but there’s a degree of authenticity and a respect for basic song craft that gives them the kind of real substance that the genre’s detractors often claim it lacks. With at least a co-writer on all 11 tracks, that places the credit for the album’s success squarely on Bentley himself.
The harder tracks tend to fare better than the ballads, given that Bentley’s limited vocals often take on a half-spoken style, but Bentley is self-aware enough to keep most of the album above a midtempo pace. Brett Beavers’s production job is pretty flawless, too, layering harmony vocals and the electric guitar power chords in ways that emphasize the songs’ strong hooks and downplaying Bentley’s vocals. The only track that doesn’t sound like a viable radio single is the closing “Prodigal Son’s Prayer,” a collaboration with the highly regarded contemporary Bluegrass outfit The Grascals. It’s the album’s only truly unexpected turn, since it shows that Bentley can pull off a far more traditional country sound than he’s yet committed to record, and which speaks to the breadth of Bentley’s talent. Bentley may not be the guitar player that Keith Urban is, the traditionalist songwriter that Brad Paisley is, or the remarkable interpretive singer Gary Allan is, but his Long Trip Alone keeps the country genre in another pair of capable hands.