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What becomes of the brokenhearted

Dierks Bentley turns heartache into country hits

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Every good country singer needs a sad story, and this is Dierks Bentley's. A few years ago, as he was gigging around Nashville trying to get signed, he met a girl. Man, he thought she was the one, to wear his ring, to take his last name. But things didn't go as they often do in pop tunes. Basically, it was a "Your Cheatin' Heart" situation, and right then and there, Bentley's hopes -- all that soul mate, two-becoming-one, happily-ever-after shit -- slipped away like a whiskey glass tumbling from a drunkard's hand.

The stress of losing his dream gal got to him. When showering, he'd find clumps of hair falling from his head. His mom became so concerned that she started sending him herbal hair growth remedies.

One night, he was driving home after seeing his ex, and damn if every radio station wasn't playing a song that reminded him of her. He punched at the receiver with his bare fist, and wound up with about a dozen stitches in his hand and blood all over the dash.

While all of this was going on, Dierks (rhymes with perks) was also working on his debut album for Capitol Records. It naturally affected the mood of the recording. "I'll never forget one morning he came in, and, man, he looked like he had been up all night," says Brett Beavers, Bentley's producer and sometime songwriting partner. "He had this ring on his pinkie that he had given his girlfriend and she gave it back to him. He's there and he's just in bad shape."

Beavers helped Bentley put his feelings to music. One day they were talking on the phone, when Beavers got the idea for a song. "At one point, Dierks said, 'I wish it would break,'" Beavers remembers. "And I said, 'What'd you say?' And he said, 'I wish my heart would just go ahead and break. That way I can get it over with and move on.' I hung up the phone and thought, 'That's a really good title.' Then Dierks came in the studio, we sat down and that song just kind of fell out."

The album that resulted from those sessions is full of songs about losing love. But it isn't as downcast as you might expect. Many cuts have the rowdy, honky-tonk flair of the first single, "What Was I Thinkin'," about falling for a troubled daddy's girl in a tight white tank top. Other numbers have more of an acoustic, bluegrass grounding, reflecting the music Bentley grew to love after moving from his hometown of Phoenix to Nashville at 19.

At the time, the town was filled with cowboy-hat-wearing Garth-a-likes, but Bentley went a different route. "I discovered a place called the Station Inn, which is a mecca for bluegrass music," Bentley says, calling from a tour stop in Las Vegas. "And that's pretty much all I listened to for two or three years." Indeed, what makes Bentley stand out is the way he's able to bridge the slick sound of contemporary country with the spare acoustic charm of bluegrass.

This nouveau-retro style has earned him three No. 1 hits and a host of accolades, including Top New Artist from the Academy of Country Music. His long, lean looks -- and fully refurbished curls -- have also placed him at No. 3 on CMT's ranking of "20 Sexiest Men" and landed him a spot on People's list of "50 Hottest Bachelors."

But the 28-year-old, understandably, is a little gun-shy when it comes to romance. "I don't date and I don't call," he says, "But if you want to come on the tour bus, hang out and drink beer, that's cool."

He just finished his new album, to be released early next year, and once again he's recovering from a breakup. "When I released my [current] record, I had just started dating someone," Bentley says. "I was really happy, in love. Everything was going great. And my [song] publisher was like, 'Man, I hope she breaks your heart for the sake of another record.' And I said, 'I hope she doesn't. I'm too happy.' There are some things more important than music, and that's being happy in your personal life. Unfortunately for me, things didn't work so well. But I think I got a good record out of it."

craig.Seymour@creativeloafing.com

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