People can and will waste a lot of time debating what is and is not country music. Labels can push their ideas, and fans will support the ones they agree with, but the conversation will never end until everyone accepts the fundamental truth that country music is a feeling above everything else. Country music is about the struggle of blue collar people in a world that relies on them while simultaneously making them feel abandoned in favor of coastal cities. It’s a soundtrack to the struggle of people everywhere doing their best to get by, and it will always be that regardless of whose singing the songs that are promoted to radio.
Dierks Bentley understands the struggle. Unlike the fortunate few who seem to rise to the heights of genre popularity overnight, Dierks Bentley has built his career through tireless touring, endless songwriting sessions, and — somehow — never losing sight of where he came from. He’s moved from cafes to clubs, to theaters, festivals, and arenas. He’s opened for everyone, helped those coming up below, and all the while kept his own family a priority. He’s living the dream of everyone who turns to country music when they need a little help, and his Burning Man tour offered the reassurance that all the hard times are worth it that so many need right now.
The closing night of Dierks’ Burning Man tour brought the “Woman, Amen” singer to Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, MI. It was the culmination of promotional push launched in the final months of 2018 that felt as energized and exciting as opening night. A cover act, Hot Country Knights, started the show with a collection of timeless genre hits from the 90s. Up and comer Tenille Townes followed them, and hitmaker Jon Pardi held down the duties of direct support. It was a stacked lineup, one that celebrated where country music had been while accepting all it could become, and it served to elevate an already enthusiastic crowd further.
Dierks arrived at 9:20 PM and wasted no time engaging with his crowd. As the band ripped through “Burning Man” the evening’s headliner greeted his audience with a big smile and powerful vocals that informed anyone still left on the fence that Dierks Bentley is the real deal. A giant video screen highlighted his production at the back of the stage, as well as an elaborate lighting rig that would rise and fall as the setlist demanded. There was also a catwalk that allowed Dierks to move through the pit area and speak directly to those with seats, whom he would greet again later in the evening while performing songs on a secondary stage at the very back of the floor.
In a room filled with people from all walks of life, including businesspeople in suits and working-class people in boots and flannel, there was no question about the legitimacy of the music being played on stage. As Dierks tore through a collection of his most significant hits, which now number so high they cannot all fit into one set, the room came together in celebration of life and the crazy journey it entails. From the drunken comfort of “Somewhere On A Beach,” to the grounded and undeniable truth of “Different For Girls,” Bentley gave the crowd a soundtrack for everyday existence. He also brought energy and an outspoken desire to party that kept the room screaming and singing throughout the evening.
At one point, roughly two-thirds of the way through his performance, he shotgunned a beer with a fan pulled from the crowd as he made his way to his secondary stage at the back of the arena. The pair shared only a few words, but the body language of the man enjoying a drink with his favorite singer told you he felt as if life could not get better at that moment. The crowd, raising their glasses before tipping them back, seemed to agree.
Before the night was over, Dierks thanked the crowd for coming out. “I know Michigan,” he said as the audience roared, “And I know you love to be outside. I’m just lucky we got here before it got too warm. Otherwise, you might all be at the lake!”
He’s not wrong. Michigan citizens long for the few months of summer they receive so that they might enjoy the hundreds of lakes within a short drive of any spot in the state. That night, however, it seemed possible that they might love country music, in whatever form it takes, even more.