It’d be a bit of an understatement to say ‘Bourbon In Kentucky’ was highly-anticipated. Ever since Dierks announced his new project ‘Riser’ via an explanatory promotional video, due in the Fall, there has been a huge buzz surrounding the record and the single that would lead this self-professed intensely personal album. I am not someone who is incredibly familiar with Dierks’ music (save a few key tracks), so my review of it is largely untouched by comparisons to previous material, and his star power.
‘Bourbon In Kentucky’ still holds trademarks familiar to Dierks fans in the strong rock influence throughout, and the chorus in particular is not too far removed from some of his slower, more meaningful material. However, there is certainly a movement away from the center of mainstream country. It feels a little rougher, a little less polished overall, and this matches the rawness of the emotion conveyed both in Dierks’ punchy, throaty vocals, and in the lyrics which tell such a vivid story. At the basis of it, it’s another ‘drinking can’t kill my pain’ song (written by Ryan Tyndell, Hillary Lindsey and Gordie Sampson), with more kick in the lyrics, and more imagination than most. Dierks makes this song, not least because of the emotion he puts in, but also due to the claim of it being a tribute to his father (who passed away during the recording of the album); what starts off as a simple lover’s heartbreak song (and is evident if you read some of the lyrics) suddenly becomes more important in our minds because it’s been contextualized as about the pain of losing a parent. The same thing happened with Miranda Lambert’s ‘Over You’, when it was revealed she wrote it with husband Blake Shelton about the loss of his brother. What began as a sad but fairly unremarkable breakup song, soon turned into CMA Song of the Year.
I’m not saying that ‘Bourbon In Kentucky’ is unremarkable, or a fair comparison to ‘Over You’. I am saying that our judgement and viewpoint of the song has been manipulated somewhat before we’ve even heard it; I know I was waiting to respect it because of the subject matter. But that doesn’t detract from it simply being a good song. In fact, the slow, unassuming, stripped-back verses build suspense fantastically, and shirks predictability in favor of the listener’s pleasantly surprised smile. It holds an impressive ‘epic’ atmosphere that it utilized elsewhere in Dierks’ music but more clearly here, and Kacey Musgraves’ featured harmony vocals are a really nice touch. I was interested to see how high up they were in the mix, and not lost like guest appearances often are, in addition to not just featuring on the chorus. Instead of being treated as guest novelty, Kacey’s vocals are both subsumed into the overall texture of the song (as if another key instrument), and identifiable as hers without taking the spotlight away from Dierks.
‘Bourbon In Kentucky’ is perhaps not as radical as fans would have you think. It doesn’t experiment as such, but has an interesting structure, great production, and isn’t anywhere near as predictable or boring as most of the songs on country radio. It is also emotional, dramatic and most of all poses the question of an album that isn’t as concerned with commercial viability.
But as a song standing by itself? It reminds us that regardless of sound, country music should be about honesty, and real emotion, and stands high and mighty above an array of forgettable, shallow summer party songs that no-one will remember in a year’s time. I think they’ll remember this.
You can listen to ‘Bourbon In Kentucky’ on Dierks Bentley’s website.