Dustin Bentall doesn't like to be tagged as a country musician.
It's not that his new album, You Are An Island, isn't packed full of fiddle, tracks featuring heartbreak and trucks and an infectious alt-country allure in the vein of, say, Kathleen Edwards, Justin Townes Earle or early-era Wilco. It's that it's really hard to explain the vast crevasse that separates this style of country from the pop-country swill with which most people associate the genre.
"There's a stigma with the word country," Bentall says from Vancouver Island where he's enjoying a short break from touring. "Any time you mention that people think of shitty country songs about tailgating. There's so much trite country music out there, but great country too. I was also getting the reaction that people were listening to my stuff and saying, 'I loved it. I hate country, but I loved it.' I wanted to take a conscious step away from that. We cranked up the electric. It's still me and my band doing what we do, but we're putting it in people's minds that it's not shitty country."
The genre slot he's most comfortable with: good, ol' rock 'n' roll. Long influenced by tried-and-true elder statesmen like Tom Petty, Neil Young, Bob Dylan (and, of course, his father, the Canadian pop-rock singer-songwriter Barney Bentall), Bentall decided he wanted to move in a hard-hitting direction for his third full-length album, released July 2 on Killbeat Music.
To that end, he enlisted the help of producer and experienced rocker, Ryan Dahle (who has played in Can-rock acts Limblifter and Age of Electric). The two were acquaintances, but came together at the urging of a mutual Vancouver photographer friend. "I went to his studio, hooked up with him and we spent a day recording some demos," Bentall says. "I loved the sound we got working out of his room with limited resources. The more we hung out and talked about recording, the more we saw eye to eye. He seemed like the perfect person to collaborate with on this record because his sonic vision and recording really aligned with what I was after. I'm really, really happy we made that decision. The sound on the record is exactly what I was going for."
The "we" to whom he refers are the members of The Smøkes, his backing band of Del Coswill, Rich Knox and new addition Kendel Carson on fiddle. The record comes on the heels of an EP, Orion, released last year as a precursor to the full-length. The two will be packaged together — the way they were initially meant to be released — as a vinyl release this fall, ahead of a cross-Canada tour.
"Basically, the record was taking such a long time to make for various reasons and we needed to release something," Bentall says. "We wanted to release the whole album last summer, but it wasn't ready, so we basically focused on that."
The EP was also recorded with help from Nova Scotia guitarist Jay Smith, who died suddenly in an Edmonton hotel room last year. Bentall and Smith were close — so much so that he recently got a tattoo of the silhouette of a man leaning on a guitar that adorns Smith's self-titled solo album.
"I always tried my best, even when he was here, to promote his album," Bentall says. "I think it's one of the best rock albums ever made. I just don't want people to forget. I've never felt more strongly about putting ink on my skin."
Bentall was mourning another important musical figure that passed away last week: JJ Cale for whom he opened early in his career. "I saw him play live the first chance I got then a couple of years later when I released a record and I was touring a bit I got asked to open a show for him in North Vancouver," he says. "That was a dream come true... It was a great experience to see someone who's been doing it that long (and) still loves to get up on stage and still loves to make people dance."