For Dierks Bentley, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided at least one unexpected upside. With the new mask mandate, he’s able to roll through downtown Nashville virtually undetected, for the first time in years.
“I actually rode my bike all the way from [Nashville neighborhood] Green Hills to, past the [Tennessee Titans’] football stadium,” the singer recounted recently to Country Now and other outlets over Zoom. “
And I was riding back through Lower Broadway to get home, and it’s great,” Bentley continues. “I have the bluff on, not just the full mask but the neckpiece that comes up, so [I’m] just totally incognito, rolling down Lower Broadway. Which hasn’t happened since, you know, back before I had a record deal. It was great!”
So, what did Bentley do when he got the chance to be out in public without being recognized by fans? He behaved like a typical tourist visiting Music City.
“Taking my time, taking videos of all the buses driving by, bachelorette [party] stuff happening,” Bentley recounts dreamily. “You know, when it comes to downtown Nashville, it’s just changed so much over the years. It was nothing, and then it became this cool little spot that was kinda fun and funky, and crowded, and now it’s kinda tipping more toward [being like] Bourbon Street. There’s people puking everywhere. It’s not the fun, cute little place it used to be.”
Still, Bentley’s optimistic about the future of downtown Nashville. He thinks the city’s growing pains will ultimately result in a fun, iconic destination spot, whatever that might look like. The singer’s helping usher in the next era of Nashville himself, after all, as a bar-owner with his own Whiskey Row on Lower Broadway.
As much as he enjoys being able to stroll undetected through Nashville with his face covering on, Bentley is deeply aware — especially as a bar-owner — of the uncertainties and challenges of the pandemic. The singer worries about the health and financial well-being of everyone downtown, both those going to bars and those working.
“I didn’t know it was gonna last this long,” he admits. “I wrote a check for $90,000 trying to help out the 90 employees I had — but I didn’t think it was gonna be nine months. I thought it was gonna be nine weeks.”
In fact, Whiskey Row is just now beginning the re-opening process, with an all-new staff and stringent safety protocols. Bentley is nervous as he looks towards the winter ahead, wondering whether another spike in COVID-19 cases could shut the bar down yet again.
“Hopefully [we] don’t have to close everything down again. It’s just so hard on the people that work and live down there to keep opening and closing,” he notes. “As soon as this is over, Nashville’s gonna go back to being the most trafficked, over-crowded city in America, and downtown’s gonna be just fine. But right now, it’s kind of a scary time for everyone down there working. Hopefully it stays open for their sake, and we get through this winter, this next little phase of craziness.”
From a musical standpoint, Bentley says he’s also uncertain how he can best help fans who are going through a stressful year. He’s not convinced that he wants to put an album out before he can tour it, and he knows that Zoom co-writing sessions aren’t ideal for any songwriter.
He has been writing, though. “I’ve written a lot of COVID-y type songs. I wrote a song with Ashley Gorley and Ross [Copperman] called ‘What a Year,’” Bentley reveals. “And it just says, ‘What a year it’s been. What a year, what a year, what a year it’s been / Lost and made some new good friends / World came to a stop, started spinning again / Tastes a little sweeter when I breathe it in…’ You know, just about what we’re all going through, that collective pain.”
And then, he second-guessed himself.
“But then, I think, you know, do fans really wanna hear that? Maybe, but they also might just wanna hear a song that’s not so much about what a year it’s been, and just makes ‘em feel good driving around in their car,” the singer points out. “So it’s such a hard thing.”
For the meantime, Bentley split the difference and put out “Gone,” an uptempo song that also refers obliquely and indirectly to the challenges of 2020. He’s keeping his plans for new music pretty close to the chest, but he’s also certainly not checked out of his musical life. In fact, you might say that the singer’s hiding in plain sight, spending time in Colorado, another place where it’s easy for him to move around in public without being recognized too often.
“That’s a huge part of it,” Bentley agrees, when asked if part of the reason why he loves Colorado is because not as many people care that he’s a country star.
“I’ve always heard that Willie Nelson said, ‘I’ve been waiting my whole life to sign autographs. I love signing autographs.’ Well, I love signing autographs. I love meeting people. I love talking about country music and all that. But yeah…I like taking a vacation from my problems, and I like taking a vacation from me,” the singer explains.
“If I go to the beach in Florida, it’s all Alabama and Auburn people, and I just find my whole body, kinda, you hunch over a little bit,” Bentley goes on to say. “You don’t even notice it, but you’re just kinda hunched over.”
But out on the West coast, things are different, and Bentley finds that he’s not always recognized as the superstar entertainer.
“We play these roles in our lives, and I play the role of husband, and father, and hockey player sometimes, pilot, and certainly I play the role of country singer,” he notes. “And I love that role. It’s one of my favorite things to do. But I don’t wanna be identified by that solely.”