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Up on the Ridge

Dierks Bentley plays around with his signature sound.

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Last year Dierks Bentley played amphitheaters, places that pack in 20,000 hooting, hollering fans. But the 24 stops on his current tour take him to decidedly more intimate venues -- including the National next week.

Bentley couldn't be happier about the change in spaces.

"I just wanted to do a tour like that … theaters, clubs, a couple of honky-tonks, throw in some smaller places," he says. "Really expose people to this music."

"This music" refers to Bentley's fifth studio release, "Up on the Ridge," a dramatic departure from the mainstream country fare that landed him seven major country hits, including "Settle for a Slowdown" and "Sideways." Bentley describes the new release, due out June 8, as a "kind of a country-bluegrass hybrid kind of thing."

It might seem reckless for an artist on the verge of becoming a country music A-lister to make such a big shift in style. But fans familiar with Bentley's background won't be the least surprised.

In the late '90s, years before Bentley began climbing the country charts, the curly haired crooner stayed busy listening, loving and playing bluegrass at Nashville's Station Inn. "I just wanted to make a record that came back and recaptured the love of that music," Bentley says, acknowledging moments of worry that his fans might not follow him down a new musical road.

"I think it's a little more [of a] rock 'n' roll approach to the music," he says. "Making albums and hoping that your fan base goes with you, but hoping even if they don't, that they appreciate that you're taking chances and trying to make great music and not just playing for safety."

Bentley's bluegrass street cred has allowed him to woo some of the biggest names in the genre, including Sam Bush, Alison Krauss, Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers.

With so many guest artists performing on "Up on the Ridge," Bentley says it might be a challenge to re-create the record's sound when performing live. For this tour Bentley travels with his regular drummer and pedal steel player, plus bluegrass band the Travelin' McCourys 

"It's tough," Bentley says. "The record has a bunch of people on there, some ambitious songs. We're going to work it out along the way."

Dierks Bentley and the Travelin' McCourys perform with Hayes Carll on May 18 at 8 p.m. at the National. Tickets are $25-$30. For information call 612-1900 or visit thenationalva.com.

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