Through the CMA Songwriters Series, fans around the United States and abroad continue to experience first-hand the creativity of those behind-the-scenes Nashville pros who write hits for the stars. At most of these shows, they benefit as well from hearing one participant who straddles both sides of the line between writing and performing.
That honor went to Dierks Bentley when he performed in a Songwriters Series show Sept. 6 at New York’s Joe’s Pub. But he also devoted that morning to a visit to PS 103, the Hector Fontanez School, in the Bronx, where a CMA donation of $20,000 enabled the school to open a music program for students for the first time. To commemorate this first outreach beyond the Nashville area of CMA’s Keep the Music Playing program, the artist shared his thoughts with an assembly of fourth-graders about the value of learning about music – and was delighted when they started singing along as he performed “5-1-5-0,” which they had rehearsed prior to his arrival.
“It’s a great honor to be a part of this, to get a bunch of musical instruments to the classroom so teachers for the first time can have music as an option for their curriculum,” he reflected while on his way out from Manhattan for this event. “I’m really excited to see how all the money that’s been raised through CMA is being used here.”
Hours after receiving his surprise serenade, Bentley was back in Manhattan to participate in that evening’s CMA Songwriters Series show at Joe’s Pub, along with Jim Beavers, Jaren Johnston and host Bob DiPiero. The atmosphere there was a bit different than at PS 103. Certainly the audience was older. But both of these CMA initiatives are about bringing music to people in ways they might not yet have experienced.
“The big goal tonight is just to represent Country Music and CMA, to show all the work that goes into Country Music and provide a wide spectrum of what it is,” Bentley said. “What makes Country Music great, what comes out of these writers’ nights, is the song. We pass along, hopefully, some great songs to people, whether they’re Country fans or not. If they weren’t Country fans before, hopefully they’ll walk out as new ones.”
Most who take part in the Songwriters Series work behind the scenes, writing words and music that singers might turn into hits. Usually, at least one participant is a high-profile performer too. For them, these shows provide an interesting contrast to their usual onstage presentations.
“It’s totally different,” Bentley acknowledged. “Before my live shows, I’ll be listening to the Foo Fighters or Van Halen at the loudest possible volume, jumping up and down, going crazy. You have to get ready to go out and fight. Tonight, it’ll be a laid-back hang with the guys. We’ll have some beers, laugh and catch up. Then we’ll go out onstage with that same vibe, sit down on our stools, tell some stories and have fun with the crowd.”
Some preparation is involved, but spontaneity characterizes most of what happens in the CMA Songwriters Series. “There are definitely no set lists,” Bentley said. “You keep some songs in the back of your head and pick what you’re going to do by feeding off the guy before you and setting up the guy after you. If the two songs before you are about whiskey or something depressing, you want to pick it up — or vice versa. That’s completely different from what I do every other day.”
A key goal is to introduce the unsung heroes of Music Row and spotlight their songs as examples of modern Country craftsmanship. But there are performance elements in this setting too, just as on an arena stage. “This is really Bob DiPiero’s thing,” Bentley said. “He’s the top — the Kenny Chesney of writers’ rounds. He can hold the audience in the palm of his hand. Guys like Bob and Rivers Rutherford, they just smoke me every time in these writers’ nights.”
Having played his share of writer nights at the Bluebird Cafe, Douglas Corner Cafe and elsewhere as a newcomer to Nashville in the mid ‘90s, Bentley more than holds his own in any live situation — including a roomful of young fans at PS 103. That experience stirred memories of his experiences with music education, at Phoenix Country Day School in Arizona.
“They didn’t have electric guitars in the school band,” he remembered. “So I wanted to play bass guitar, but a guy named Ryan Fox had already lined that up. So I had to go with the saxophone, which was definitely not my instrument of choice. But it ended up being great. I learned to read music and to play along with other people. It definitely planted a seed and showed me that music could be played rather than just listened to.”
Bentley thought for a second and then laughed. “I should have brought that saxophone along and donated it today. It might have had more use than it’s getting now.”