After film director Joseph Kosinski gave Dierks Bentley a sneak peek at Only the Brave, the singer knew he somehow had to be a part of the new movie, which tells the gripping true story of the 19 elite firefighters who died battling an Arizona wildfire four years ago.
“I told him I’d come to the red carpet just to open doors up,” Bentley, 42, recalls to PEOPLE.
But Kosinski had much bigger ideas than doorman duties. He wanted Bentley to collaborate on a song that would accompany a wrenching moment in the film: during the credits when photos of the cast members are paired with images of the deceased firefighters they portrayed.
Bentley leaped at the opportunity, not only co-writing the song, “Hold the Light,” but providing its yearning vocals.
Surely Kosinski knew the artist would be a shoo-in, considering Bentley had organized a benefit concert in Prescott Valley, Arizona – the firefighters’ home base – just three weeks after the 2013 tragedy. An Arizona native, Bentley teamed with Randy Houser, David Nail and The Band Perry to raise more than $475,000 for the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. During his time in Prescott Valley, Bentley also became friends with Brendan McDonough, the lone survivor of the team.
The song, as Bentley describes it, is actually a message from the deceased to the living, “the idea that in times of darkness, you need to hold the hope, hold onto the light and to use that to get you through.”
When the singer-songwriter was brought into the project, the song was already in draft form, thanks to co-writers Joe Trapanese and Sean Carey (who’s also a band member of Bon Iver).
“As a songwriter,” Bentley explained at a special screening in Nashville on Oct. 12, “some days you walk in and you have the idea, and you have the melody, and you kind of drive the whole process. And some days you walk in and one of your co-writers has everything teed up for you, and that’s what happened for me in this movie.”
But Bentley was still encouraged to make the song his own, and with the assistance of co-writer Jon Randall, the artist added a bridge “and lifted it up a little bit.”
Perhaps Bentley’s most meaningful contribution was his addition of lyrics that reflect the actual words of Eric Marsh, the Hotshots’ supervisor. “He’d say, ‘See you on this side or the other, brother,’” Bentley tells PEOPLE.
RELATED VIDEO: Taylor Kitsch Says ‘Only the Brave‘ Is a Beautiful Tribute to the Fallen Servicemen of the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire
The words struck home for Brendan McDonough when Bentley eventually shared the song with the lone survivor. “He heard the song,” Bentley recalls, “and said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what my supe used to always say to me.’”
In anticipation of the movie’s general release on Friday, Bentley had been making appearances at premieres and screening events around the country, doing whatever he can to “shed a light on the 19 guys and their families and their story – but it’s just beyond to wilderness firefighters, in general. … Between this movie coming out right now and events that just happened in Las Vegas, it’s like, wow, who are these guys that run toward danger? …What kind of person processes danger that way? … It’s a great group of Americans that we need now more than ever.”