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Dierks Bentley elevates his game with 'Riser'

Dierks Bentley performs onstage during the 2015 CMA

Dierks Bentley performs onstage during the 2015 CMA Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 11, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / Rick Diamond

To write his latest album, "Riser," Dierks Bentley turned to his father. He remembered a crucial 1994 road trip they'd taken together from their Phoenix home to Nashville, where Bentley intended to sing, write songs and become famous. Bentley's dad, Leon, used to refer to beer as "a good idea." At one point, they drove to the other side of a river in Arkansas to a liquor store, adding half an hour of driving to consume the "good idea" at their Motel 6.

When Leon died in 2012, Dierks realized he still owned the same Chevy pickup they'd taken for the road trip. Thinking about the truck he called "Big White," and his father, he began to write "I Hold On," which would become the centerpiece of "Riser."

"We drove her out to Tennessee," he sings, "and she's still here and now he's gone." The idea of holding on to stuff proved a more universal theme than he had planned.

"It became interesting. It became like a love song. I was trying to explain why you never leave your spouse and you hold on," says Bentley, who headlines the June 26 bill at FarmBorough on Randalls Island. This new, three-day country music festival also stars big names such as Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley and Dwight Yoakam.

Bentley, 40, best known for country hits such as "What Was I Thinkin'," "5-1-5-0" and the more recent "Drunk on a Plane," spends much of a half-hour phone interview talking about his dad. Leon had fathered Dierks in his 50s, and Dierks' brother 10 years later. Today, Dierks has three young children, including 1-year-old Knox, who occasionally interrupts the interview, prompting the singer to talk about his own fatherhood.

"I can't imagine [being] 60 years old with a newborn," Bentley says. "I turn around a corner and he's standing on an island in the kitchen with a chef's hat holding a knife with six broken eggs. I feel like I'm getting payback. I wish my dad was around so I could apologize."

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When Bentley was a kid, he had a habit of tossing half-sticks of dynamite into a pond, blowing fish 100 feet into the air. Although he insists it wasn't punishment, his parents sent him to military camp in Culver, Indiana, when he was about 12 years old. "It was great," Bentley says. "You'd fold your bed . . . shine your shoes meticulously. A couple different times a week you'd have a parade. It was probably a good thing for me."

He adds: "I'm sure, [for] my parents in the summertime, it presented them with a nice break."

The 1994 road trip Bentley took with his dad was his first of several attempts to make it as a country singer. At first, he didn't go anywhere, but he wound up playing regularly at the Station Inn, a bluegrass club, which gave him new musical focus and energy. He found a job researching country history for The Nashville Network and recorded demos at night. He took off with his first album, 2003's "Dierks Bentley," and while his songs often submit to Nashville cliches, full of country roads, lonesome railroad tracks, cabins in the woods and honky-tonk jukeboxes, he also has a way of writing poignantly. "Drunk on a Plane" is an effective party song, about a "737 rocking like a G6," but it has a vulnerable core: "I'll try anything to drown out the pain," Bentley sings.

Bentley, who missed the Garth Brooks-Clint Black cowboy-hat generation by a couple of years, showed off his blond, floppy hair on his early album covers, and he became a country sex symbol, selling more than 5 million copies of his first five albums together. "Riser," with its intense focus on his father, was "a really important record I had to write and get out there." The next album, he says, will be "wide open" -- his wife suggested a concept album about a man having an affair, but Bentley is leaning, instead, toward reeling out a string of up-tempo, rocking songs so he can enliven his concerts.

For his current tour, Bentley varies the shows so the upbeat songs are antidotes to the tearjerkers and vice versa -- the ones about his dad are so personal that he sometimes gets "messed up" singing them. But he emphasizes that his concerts are elaborate celebrations at their core. "I've got kids. The show is my night out. The guys in my band, it's their Saturday night, too. I tell the band, 'We're not going to go out on the town later -- this is our town. Let's lose our minds,' " Bentley says. "It really is about bringing a genuine party."


WHEN|WHERE June 26-28, Randalls Island

TICKETS $225 (three-day pass) to $999 (three-day "VIP Experience" pass)





Country stars and future country stars to watch out for at FarmBorough:

Maddie & Tae (5 p.m. June 26, main stage) The great thing about pop music is that when too many people sing about too many stupid things, like the overabundance of sweet young things in cutoff jeans in mainstream country, somebody always shows up to deliver the rebuttal. That was last year's brilliant "Girl in a Country Song," by this duo from Sugar Land, Texas, and Ada, Oklahoma. Maddie & Tae have since released four songs and plan a full album in late August.

Dwight Yoakam(6:15 p.m. June 27, main stage) Advice for country radio programmers: When all seems lost, just play all Dwight, all the time. The Pikeville, Kentucky-born singer-songwriter has hardly ever made a bad album, going back to his 1986 debut "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc."; his best rockers, like "Gone (That'll Be Me)," have grooves worthy of The Rolling Stones or U2; and this year's "Second Hand Heart" suggests he's as hungry as ever for a hit record.

Sturgill Simpson (7 p.m. June 27, Next from Nashville stage) Although he gets credit for sparking a new kind of outlaw-country movement, Simpson, a native of Jackson, Kentucky, simply pairs his willingness to try new ideas with a sturdy competence. "Turtles All the Way Down," which opens 2014's acclaimed "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music," borrows a tune from Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds," then adds echoey sound effects and lines about reptile aliens.

Brad Paisley (9:15 p.m. June 27, main stage) It's a credit to this veteran West Virginia singer-songwriter and fast-fingered guitarist that 2013's "Accidental Racist," co-starring rapper LL Cool J in a clunky attempt to find common ground with an African-American Starbucks barista, didn't kill his career. He'd been doing great -- "This Is Country Music" and "American Saturday Night" pushed modern country into both rebellious and inclusive directions, and he continued to innovate with last year's well-written "Moonshine in the Trunk."

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