It's a sign of Dierks Bentley's increasing stardom and clout that he has a writing credit on all 11 songs on his third album, 2006's Long Trip Alone. Not every country singer/songwriter gets a chance to do that, but not every singer/songwriter scores a bona fide hit with his sophomore set, and Bentley's 2005 Modern Day Drifter was that, reaching the top of the Billboard country charts and spawning several hits, including the number one "Settle for a Slowdown." Such success allows an artist to set his own pace, at least a little bit, and Bentley was already showing signs of being a headstrong troubadour on Modern Day Drifter, consciously referring -- both lyrically and musically -- to such classic country mavericks as Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard throughout the record. Given these deliberate allusions to such musical rebels, it would made some sense if Bentley followed their path and crafted a third album that was tougher, wilder, rougher than his breakthrough, but Long Trip Alone isn't that at all: it's a slick, streamlined version of his hit album. Keep in mind that slick and streamlined aren't the same thing as soulless; rather, the polish of Long Trip Alone is a sign of Bentley's increased confidence and professionalism, and how he wants to stay at the top now that he's gotten there. As such, the album is so clean it sparkles -- all the better for it to fit into mainstream country radio -- but beneath that sheen, Bentley remains a little restless, even risky. He'll bring the Grascals to play on "Prodigal Son's Prayer," letting them steer the duet toward their bluegrass roots; he'll explain that "The Heaven I'm Headed To" has a place for both priests and prostitutes; and he'll play tribute to his honky tonk beginnings, on "Band of Brothers," which isn't only a musical tip of the hat to hardcore country, but also a sly salute to his fellow road-warriors. But the main impression of Long Trip Alone isn't that restlessness; it's how Bentley can come across as a entirely mainstream country act without losing his sense of self. He's a savvy songwriter, particularly when he's slyly incorporating elements of rock or pop into his country (check out the anthemic opening of "Trying to Stop Your Leaving" for the former, "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)" for the latter), managing to be commercial without being crass, coming across as sentimental, not saccharine, on his earnest ballads. At times, it seems like he could use a little bit more heft or grit in his voice, yet his simple, straight-ahead singing enhances his Everyman qualities and helps make him and his music all the more likeable. Perhaps Long Trip Alone may disappoint fans who were looking for his next album to be an unapologetic hard country record, but in a way, this is more interesting: Dierks Bentley has kept that spirit and put it within the confines of mainstream country, resulting in one of the livelier and better country records of 2006 and one that proves he is indeed a major talent.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
feat: The Grascals