Dierks Bentley has worked hard to build his artistic cachet over the course of his career, and the result is that Up on the Ridge includes a simply extraordinary roster of collaborators. Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Tim O’Brien, Sonya Isaacs, and Chris Stapleton (formerly of the Steeldrivers) all provide expert harmony vocals, and Miranda Lambert, Jamey Johnson, Del McCoury, Kris Kristofferson, and the Punch Brothers all perform proper duets. With that kind of a lineup, it isn’t a stretch to say he might be the least talented person on his own album.
That isn’t meant as a slight against Bentley. He may not have the broadest vocal range or most powerful voice, but Bentley is an effective, thoughtful singer who’s smart enough to know his own limitations. On their surprising cover of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love),” Bentley wisely lets McCoury use his plaintive mountain tenor to hit the high notes in the chorus while he handles the song’s verses with both restraint and genuine pathos. Bentley is even better on rowdier cuts like “Rovin’ Gambler” and the forceful title track, and his tongue-in-cheek phrasing brings a bit of levity to standouts like the bitter “You’re Dead to Me” and the randy “Fiddlin’ Around.”
Still, as strong as his own performances are, Bentley is often upstaged by his cohorts. His reading of Bob Dylan’s “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” is pensive and melancholy, but Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek and presently of the Punch Brothers, is a more demonstrative, emotional singer. The highlight of the set is “Bad Angel,” a lighthearted song about half-assed attempts to shrug off vices. Bentley sells his verse about smoking just fine, but Johnson’s consideration of gambling is rougher and more lived-in, and Lambert just flat-out kills her lines about drinking and provides deft high harmonies in the song’s chorus. (A year’s worth of touring in large venues in support of acts like Brad Paisley has given Lambert’s voice a sexy rasp that is perfectly matched to just about everything she sings, and “Angel” falls right into her considerable wheelhouse.)
If he actively invites some direct comparisons that don’t do him any real favors, Bentley can at least be credited for having impeccable taste and an ear for talent. But Ridge isn’t just a performers’ showcase. The album is also a major rebound for Bentley in terms of his songwriting and song selection after 2009’s underwhelming Feel That Fire. The U2 cut is something of a novelty, since the song’s impressionistic lyrics don’t entirely work in the context of country and bluegrass conventions, but the Dylan cover is spot-on, as are Kristofferson’s “Bottle to the Bottom” and Buddy and Julie Miller’s lovely “Love Grows Wild.”
Bentley, for his part, fully holds his own among such high-caliber songwriters. There isn’t a weak song among his five co-writing credits. Album closer “Down in the Mine” borrows some images from Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” but its melody is robust. The title track, “Dead,” and “Gambler” all help to set the freewheeling tone that carries over into many of the record’s performances. “Draw Me a Map” is even better, using some unexpected, sharply turned phrases to elevate its central conceit. It’s Bentley’s finest romantic ballad, and Krauss’s understated harmony vocals are predictably superb.
Despite the unimpeachable quality of the performances and the top-notch songwriting, it’s Jon Randall Stewart’s production that is perhaps the album’s best attribute. At a time when so many country albums are losing the loudness war, Stewart gives each of the record’s acoustic instruments actual breathing room, resulting in a full-bodied sound that brings a contemporary polish to traditional arrangements.
Up on the Ridge isn’t a proper bluegrass album by any stretch of the imagination, despite the exclusive use of acoustic instruments. Instead, it’s an example of what modern country music ought to sound like: The fiddles and banjos are placed prominently in the mixes and there isn’t a drum machine to be found anywhere. But Bentley and Stewart also recognize the value of a strong hook. And ultimately, it’s Up on the Ridge‘s overall aesthetic that proves Bentley’s deep respect for—and his legitimate, intuitive understanding of—country traditions, even as he uses those traditions in forward-thinking, progressive ways.