Dierks Bentley and his close-knit band played more shows in more places in 2004 than a body should be able to take or a mind should remember, but one night stands out as a distilled dose of the year's magic. At 8 p.m. sharp, Dierks took the stage at the Memphis Pyramid and sang for 30 minutes for some 20,000 people, setting the table for veteran superstar George Strait. Then, he and his band hopped on the bus, drove a couple hours to Oxford, Mississippi and set up for a raucous late-night show for 150 college students in the basement of an Ole Miss frat house.
"We went from one of the biggest lighting rigs you can have to a three-ring light tree," Dierks remembers with a laugh. "The extension cord caught on fire and the lights went out for twenty minutes."
What you should understand about Dierks Bentley is that the frat house gig wasn't a chore but a blast, and the Pyramid show wasn't the be-all-end-all but an honor and a piece of a much larger puzzle. He's nothing but proud to have had opening tour slots for Strait and Kenny Chesney on the strength of his debut album. But the more emotional rewards came from the long shows on the smaller stages, the double-bills in rock clubs with his pals in Cross Canadian Ragweed and the county fairs where fans lined up for three-hour autograph sessions.
Dierks had lived most of his life in two places before last year: Phoenix, Arizona, where he grew to teenhood, and Nashville, where he spent eight years transforming himself from an unimposing guitarist and singer to a serious country artist. Then, in his first full year as a major-label act, Dierks spent 300 days on the road, visiting some of the country's most remote communities: Rock Springs, Wyoming, Elma Washington, Porterfield, Wisconsin and scores of little burgs in the South.
For Dierks, there could have been no better way to discover America. When his driver offered to put a TV monitor up by the front of the bus where Dierks seemed to like to sit, he declined. The country going by outside the vast windshield was better than any widescreen television, he said. That bus arrived at dozens of dirt tracks in dozens of dusty towns and was greeted by fair boards wearing matching jackets and brimming with home town pride. Dierks began to discover that he was, in many cases, the biggest thing to happen to the town in months, and if that's possible with country music, he finds that absolutely amazing.
"I want to wake up every morning thinking I've got to make the most of this day," he says of his open-armed embrace of the road. "If we're playing a corn dog fair, I get out there and check out the horses and the cows and the prizes and hang out and meet people. You get to be a country music missionary. You're touching people's lives every day. You're influencing these people. So I try to make the most out of every day."