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Watch Out, Luke Bryan! Dierks Bentley Is Sharpening His Wit – and Aiming It at You

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Is Dierks Bentley already warming up for his ACM Awards banter with co-host Luke Bryan?

It sounded that way on Saturday after Bentley heard a phone’s custom ring tone go off in the audience during an appearance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Bentley, 40, stopped mid-sentence. “That better be one of my songs,” he quipped, then realized what he may have heard. “Is that Luke Bryan?”

The audience roared as Bentley jokingly protested, “That’s just disrespectful!” He then offered the phone’s owner 99 cents to buy one of his ring tones.

Bryan was in Bentley’s sights again when he performed his 2005 hit “Come a Little Closer.” This time Bentley interrupted himself to note that the lyrics, “I feel like strippin’ it down,” are suspiciously similar to a certain 2015 No. 1 hit.

“I think it’s where Luke Bryan got his song,” he charged, adding with a sly smile: “Pending litigation.”

The sold-out onstage interview and acoustic performance, held in the Nashville museum’s CMA Theater, was in support of the brand-new exhibit, “Dierks Bentley: Every Mile a Memory.” The event came at a time when the artist has much to look forward to: the ACM co-hosting duties on April 3 (where he’s also up for two awards), a new tour that launches May 12, and a new album, Black, that Bentley said should drop in late May.

Its first single, “Somewhere on a Beach” is already heading up the charts, and Bentley offered another preview, as well as an intriguing hint, of what else to expect on the album. During his nine-song set, he performed another track, an uptempo anthem he co-wrote entitled, “Freedom.” And as Bentley praised producer Ross Copperman, he also dropped news of a duet with a mystery female artist.

“We just went down to Austin to record with a great singer down there – someone in a different genre – and [Cooperman] just totally made her feel at ease,” Bentley said.

Museum editor Peter Cooper guided the singer through his 22 years since his Nashville arrival, and Bentley responded with stories of growing pains and self-discovery.

Of his first, independently produced, album, he said, “I’d give it, like a half a star. It’s hard for me to listen to. I was still trying to find my voice and find my voice as a writer.”

He winced as he remembered one of his first arena performances, as a Kenny Chesney opener. “I went out there to sing ‘She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,’ [Chesney’s] encore song, and I’m running around on stage like Garth Brooks,” Bentley recalled. Jumping off a set of stairs, he knew the moment he landed that he’d torn a knee ligament. “I finished the song, went back home and had surgery on a Monday and was back on the road on a Wednesday,” he said, “and I finished up that tour in a [leg] brace.”

Though his career was gathering momentum, over the years the touring began to take its toll. “I was so focused on headlining,” he said, and trying to tie his albums into his tours. “I thought, you know what? I need to feed the muse and stop trying to put fuel in these buses.”

Bentley credits his bluegrass project, Up on the Ridge, as the album that helped him finally find his way as an artist. Though it didn’t produce any top tens, “I really feel like it was such a pivotal moment,” he said. “From that record forward, I really tried to put a lot of quality control into writing great songs, finding great songs, trying to make great albums and not worrying about how they tie into touring.”

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His last two albums have produced multiple No. 1s, including “I Hold On,” which Bentley called “the most important song I’ve got.”

Reflecting on its personal lyrics, he said, “Only in country music can you compare an old pickup truck and an old guitar to your wife and turn it into a love song … Thank God for country music.”

The “Dierks Bentley: Every Mile a Memory” exhibit continues at the museum through Sept. 6.