Entrenched in the scenery of coastal shores, the infamous Rocky Mountains and vast prairie skies, roots music is an absolute staple in Canadian heritage. Dustin Bentall’s music is no exception. For close to 10 years, Bentall has been firing over highway lines with guitar in hand to share his unique tunes with eager listeners.
Raised on folk and country classics, Bentall’s sound resonates with fans across the country. His first released record, Streets With No Lights, in 2006, was the honest sound of a country troubadour, skipping stones on railways tracks, painting a picture of a young man looking for home. Now, seven years since that first album dropped, Bentall’s music has driven a curve towards something a little less conventional.
“We do draw from a lot of vintage styles of music, but there’s also something very current about what we do and I wanted to solidify that in the Canadian music community,” says Bentall, when asked about the two releases in the same year of 2013, Orion and You Are An Island. The two albums feature a prominently different sound than was explored in his earlier works. “It was my decision to take a different direction with this record. At the same time, it was very much a natural evolution of my inspirations and songwriting. I wanted to reach more ears and expand our audience.”
Bentall’s aspirations of playing to a wider variety of audiophiles are no pipe dream. You Are An Island hit #1 on CKUA this summer and sat at #1 on CBC 3 for almost three weeks.
Though proving quite capable of carving an independent swath through the changing forms of the music industry, many still associate Dustin with his father, Canadian musical icon Barney Bentall. Living in the shadow would be intimidating for some, especially those who chose to pursue an identical passion, but it barely fazes the younger Bentall.
“I’ve just been out doing my thing all along and continue to do so. There are a lot of great people in the crowd and in the press who have followed me and understand and appreciate that I’m out making a name for myself.”
Barney and Dustin shared the stage recently during the 2013 Grand Cariboo Opry, which brought to the stage numerous Canadian musical idols, such as Ridley Bent, Neil Osborne of 54-40 and Jeffrey Hatcher, of the incomparable early-90s Calgary-based band, The Blue Shadows.
The excitement of two new records so close together with such a unique sound, attracting multitudes of new fans, has also pushed Bentall’s career in a promising new direction promotionally.
“…We’ve started to get some commercial radio play which is new territory for us. We also teamed up with Lindi Ortega earlier this year for a five-week tour around North America. That couldn’t have gone better. We were introduced to her crowd in The States and then we joined forces in Western Canada and got to play bigger rooms than either of us had played before.”
Perhaps part of Bentall’s rising success can be attributed to some new collaboration in and outside of the studio. After almost a decade of touring, writing and cutting tracks, Bentall has solidified an excellent group of musicians to further his cause. Kendel Carson, a gutsy fiddle player, and Del Cowsill, renowned by reputation for his guitar picking and relation to the unsurpassed Billy Cowsill, are excellent, not-so-new additions to Bentall’s inspiring and evolving sound.
One partnership in particular seems unmistakably flawless: Ryan Dahle, legendary producer most recognized for his work with alt-rock giants, Age of Electric, was an intrinsic component in the crafting, recording, and producing of You Are An Island.
“After we decided to work together on the record, he wanted to spend as much time as possible together before we hit the studio. We ended up hanging out six nights a week in the month and a half before we went in with the band to track the record. We would just go over and over every part of every song and really pick it apart. I loved it. It really helped the sound evolve.”
Working with a new producer and breaking out of the the I – IV – V arrangements of country and roots tunes would push Dustin Bentall and his group, The Smøkes, to new limits. The recent recordings feature a melodic richness untouchable by many other bands currently gigging. The songs on Orion and You Are An Island also feature a unique introspective attachment, and my curiosity begged me to pry as to which, if any, was Bentall’s favourite track to record in the recent year.
“‘Dreaming Of A Nightmare.’ Our friend, Ryan Guldemond (Mother Mother), was hanging out that day so we threw a guitar on him and gave him some toys to play with and he worked his magic and helped make that song really special. Then Kendel (Carson) tracked all the strings and that song ended up being my favourite recording on the record.”
The hard grit and honesty of true country music still shines through in Bentall’s unique writing style and arrangements. With the vision of separating from the standard form of folk music, one of Canada’s best rising artists is forging a new path across the country to share his distinctive sound with audiences, new and old alike. When asked about his tour with Lindi Ortega throughout Alberta, the enthusiastic Bentall responded:
“The Calgary and Edmonton shows were off the chains. We played a jam-packed Palomino and then sold out the Avenue Theatre. That Edmonton show was the highlight of the whole tour. The place went berserk.”
Catch Dustin Bentall and the Smøkes at the Park Theatre (Winnipeg) on December 3, Avenue Theatre (Edmonton) on December 5 and at Commonwealth (Calgary) on December 7.
By Mariel Buckley