When fans go to see Dierks Bentley's smash What the Hell World Tour, something curious occurs in advance of the official proceedings - even before opener Jon Pardi hits the stage. Unannounced to the audience, a seemingly anonymous bluegrass group emerges and begins jamming. Little do they know, the group of unknown musicians is actually made up of Bentley and his band, incognito.
"Some people will catch on, and it's fun to see their faces go from really confused to really excited," Bentley says of the gag. "We're all dressed in different outfits. It's something for us, and it's something for our hard-core fans who get there early. I've always loved bluegrass, and all of the guys are great acoustic musicians. We usually sit around backstage playing bluegrass, so we've been talking about it for a year to try to find a way to make it work for the show."
Not only is Bentley one of country music's biggest stars - with dozens of hit singles under his belt from the silly ("Drunk on a Plane") to the heartfelt ("Different for Girls") - he's also one of its longest-reigning names, traversing a long musical road to the top of the charts.
"We sold out a lot of bars and clubs back in the day," says Bentley of the earliest gigs of his career. "When we moved on to bigger theaters, before I'd go out, I'd ask my tour manager how it looked in the audience and he'd always say: 'It's gonna look good. We're gonna put some pipes and drapes in the back section so you can't even tell there are empty seats.' "
These days the least of Bentley's worries is empty seats.
"We're sometimes selling 8,000 more tickets than last year," he says of his What the Hell Tour, which was named Billboard Boxscore's No. 1 Hot Tour of 2017 and also features fellow country stars Cole Swindell and Jon Pardi. Bentley plays a range of his hits, including cuts from his eighth album, 2016's "Black." It achieved gold status earlier this year.
Dierks Bentley: What The Hell World Tour with Cole Swindell and Jon Pardi
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25
Where: Mattress Firm Amphitheatre, 2050 Entertainment Circle, Chula Vista
Tickets: $29- $196
As to how he's stayed at the top of what's a notoriously fickle genre, Bentley has an idea.
"It goes back to the main thing I've learned from when I first started making records," he says. "Release albums without worrying about radio, without worrying about touring. You have to make these albums for yourself, ones that stand alone without anything else. You can't control anything else. I've been focusing on that, and it's just been a great ride."
It's a lesson he picked up during his initial days in Nashville. He'd perform at local bars at night, and during the day he worked at the now-defunct Nashville TV Network as a researcher.
"I consider that my paper-route gig, and I don't know what I would have done without it," says Bentley of the job, which paid him $1 an hour to comb through footage of country stars.
"Someone would say, 'Hey, we need footage of George Jones singing "He Stopped Loving Her Today," ' and I'd have to go find it and make a VHS."
It was a job that proved to be a fertile training ground for the future country star.
"When you're working on one dream, you have to come at it at 20 different angles," he says. "It was as important as any gig I've had on the road. I just love country music and everything about it."
LeDonne is a freelance writer.