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Hitting the post-Grammy parties with Dierks Bentley

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Dierks_lHow’s that post-Grammy hangover, PopWatchers? I’ll tell you what, as much fun as I had sitting in a tiny room and typing my uncensored thoughts into a small black box for all the world to see last night, it wasn’t until I got the hell out of the Staples Center and into the cool dark L.A. evening that my party fun time truly began.

You see, I had a once in a lifetime chance yesterday to hang out with a Grammy winner; to experience the rush and thrill of riding around the City of Angels in a big black SUV, secure in the knowledge that you are the best of the best, a cherished pearl in the music industry oyster; to feel the warmth and love of your colleagues as you attend fabulous soirées and rub elbows with the powerful, the beautiful, and the jealous; to pour yourself into bed at dawn, the golden idol nestled in the crook of your extraordinary arm, visions of future successes dancing in your well-coiffed head.

Yes, my Grammy night was to be extraordinary, PopWatchers. But there’s just one problem: My date didn’t win. He ran up against the unstoppable train that was “Jesus Take the Wheel,” and, as a very wise man once told me: Nobody f—-s with the Jesus.

Wait. Maybe I should back up a little.

addCredit(“Dierks Bentley: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images”)

At some point last week when I was planning my Grammy plan of attack, a publicist pal of mine offered me the chance to attend the artists-only EMI Grammy afterparty with country superstar and double Grammy nominee Dierks Bentley (pictured). Dierks, for those who don’t know, is a hard-working chap from Arizona whose last two albums, Long Trip Alone and Modern Day Drifter, spend a lot of time in my iPod playlist. He’s also the winner of all kinds of breakout and new artist awards from the country music establishment, he’s opened for people like George Strait, and his “Every Mile a Memory” should have been on my fancy music critic Top 10 list this year, but I pulled it at the last minute for Pink’s “Dear Mr. President” because I was in a crabby mood that day, and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. Finally, Dierks Bentley has long sported what I believe to be the most ridiculous head of hair in music today.

Initially, the plan was for me to meet up with Dierks and Mary (his publicist) after the Grammys, and ride in the car with them to the EMI party; that got revised before the show even began because Dierks wanted to go back to the hotel for a bit before the show ended. I was worried this might be because “Jesus Take the Wheel” had won in both of his categories and he might be quickly descending into a pit of self-loathing — I later learned he hadn’t slept in over 24 hours, so I think a little nap was much deserved. But what this meant was, instead of riding away from Staples in a limo, I drove myself to meet them at the party, parking my sad little rental car in a lot and praying the laptop in the trunk would be strong and persevere.

The EMI party was conveniently located at Boulevard3, the same place EW had our big Timbaland fete last week, and there were nice caterers with boxes of In ‘n’ Out burgers walking around, people walking around with dozens and dozens of In ‘n’ Out burgers, PopWatchers… but I could not, for the life of me, find Dierks. How do you miss a dude with hair like that?

Easy: He cut it all off.

So there I was, in the midst of the slightly depressed EMI party, meeting the shorn-but-adorable Mr. Bentley; his firecracker of a wife, Cassidy, who’s an aspiring documentary filmmaker and cobbler; and best of all, the Bentley parents. I felt immediately included, welcomed into this family, and maybe the best part was realizing that, even if you’re a fancy country star at a Grammy party, parents are still parents, and they will do things to embarrass you. Like admit to a reporter there may have been animals living in your hair before you cut it (Mom), or march right over to meet Corinne Bailey Rae like it was a PTA meeting and she’d done a really nice job in the fall drill team recital (Mom again). We hung around and chatted and ate sushi and soaked up the night, with Dad sitting on the couch just like any dad sits on a couch anywhere. It was the most normal thing I’d done in three days.

Here’s what I learned about Dierks: He played the NASCAR Bud Shootout in Daytona, Florida, on Saturday and hadn’t slept since, but it was worth it, since he got to hang out in Dale Earnhardt Jr’s pit. He loves Pearl Jam but loves U2 more, and last December he canceled two gigs in Vegas to fly to Hawaii and see Bono and Eddie Vedder perform “Rockin’ in the Free World.” He’s the kind of guy that will act out Bono and Eddie Vedder performing “Rockin’ in the Free World” when he’s telling that story. He is sponsored by Bud Light, and by no means was he drinking anything else last night, something else perhaps poured into a glass so as to hide the offending non-Bud-Light bottle, a glass he periodically hoisted and hollered “What a cold and refreshing Bud Light!” He is trusting enough to take pictures of his family with the reporter’s digital camera and believe she’s going to e-mail them to him, not put them up on Flickr. (I have scruples, people.) And he has a remarkably gregarious sense of humor, so even his most bitter comments — he’s the one who quoted The Big Lebowski in reference to Carrie Underwood and Jesus kicking his ass — seem good-natured and polite.

We talked a bit about the ceremony, and both he and Cassidy agreed with the night’s general consensus that it’s possible the Dixie Chicks’ sweep may have been more about the message than the music. But they were more fired up about the fact that Rascal Flatts didn’t get to sing any of their own songs, and that the Police seemed fairly forgettable. But I got the sense that when you’re inside the Grammy auditorium, it’s less about the show than who you’ve gotten to meet (Dierks’ highlight was John Mayer, someone he clearly respects), and it’s less about getting inside the Grammy auditorium than surviving the red carpet (where Cassidy’s massive anxiety was tempered by getting a friendly wave from Mary J. Blige). And at the party, it seemed a lot more about forgetting all that, and just enjoying the company of friends and family, schmoozing with the occasional CEO who wandered by, and then plotting where to go next.

Where to go next: A Big Fancy Talent Agency party, high in the Hollywood Hills. We all loaded into the big black SUV — Dierks, Cassidy, Mary, me, and two dudes who seemed to have a hard time deciding if they wanted to be a part of this story or not (but certainly didn’t have a hard time playing me an mp3 of their bluegrass version of “Hey Ya!”) — and drove to UCLA to get wristbands. Then, up up up, to a giant house packed with people, both famous and really, really not. When we arrived, Dierks and Cassidy disappeared into the dance floor to spend a little marital time, and I took off to explore the grounds. Along the way I rubbed elbows with Diddy; I heard a man turn to Tom Green and say “Dude, you’re iconic!”; and while in the bathroom line, I watched a very intoxicated woman fist-bump Wee Man in the head, then lean down, place her breasts in his face, and wail, “You’ve got such a good hearrrrrrrt!” It was that kind of party. Once I caught up with Dierks again, Cassidy was missing, a freezing cold Mary was wearing one of the mystery men’s jackets, Kid Rock was in the hizzouse, and we were talking to Lost producer Bryan Burk, a refreshingly non-posery person in the crush, and a huge Dierks fan (“Seriously,” he told me, “I am not just saying this because you’re a reporter”). Once people started sexy-dancing to “Sweet Caroline,” we took it as our cue to leave.

Back in the SUV, back down the hill, laughing all the way. The party highlight for many people in the car was watching Paris Hilton eating a hot dog, although everyone agreed that it’s not like something we hadn’t seen before, ahem. In fact, most of that drive to the Roosevelt Hotel, the car was working seriously blue, and I was constantly being reminded that everything was OFF THE RECORD, which eventually led to the singing of a My Morning Jacket song. Then Cassidy got hilariously “bored,” someone got hung up talking about nipples, and it was all downhill from there, literally.

Basically, being a fancy country star driving around the City of Angels on Grammy night is just like being anyone else after a couple drinks in a car full of friends. You gossip about stars and their plastic surgery or bizarre dating choices, you rave about the singers you love (David Gray) and gripe about the ones you hate (OFF THE RECORD), you cheerfully bitch about not winning a Grammy and everyone tells you it’s okay, you’re going to be okay… because you are going to be okay, and this is a really good night.

When we got to the Roosevelt, we pushed past the straggling pseudo-fabulous folks still clustered outside the doors trying to gain entry to a sleepy poolside bar in the process of closing; we wandered up to a cabana room and had one last beer on the balcony (which may or may not have been opened with one of those Reef bottle-opener flip-flops, leading me to wonder if Kenny Chesney was maybe hiding under the bed). And then, just like that, the party screeched to a halt: Dierks and Cassidy went to sleep. It was 2:30am, which isn’t watch-the-sunrise late, but ain’t too shabby, neither. And this morning, I got a phone call from a perky Dierks, ever polite, ever vigilant. He wanted to thank me for hanging out, and make sure I put the bit about Paris Hilton and the hot dog in, and make sure I got home okay. I told him yes, I was fine, and yes, I’d write about Paris, and I thanked him for a lovely, revelatory evening.

And so it is time for the big conclusion, right? The lesson in this Very Special Grammy Episode? Hmm. Okay, I think what I figured out during my post-Grammy whirlwind was that, for all the b.s. surrounding the cult of celebrity — for all the drunk girls in the bathroom lines, the hipster dudes puking on the porch, the overzealous party publicists chucking donuts at your head (seriously) — the key to surviving it is to surround yourself with the kinds of people you can make penis jokes with in a limo driving down Sunset at 2 a.m. And to his credit, Dierks Bentley — with his awesome wife, his sweetheart of a publicist, and the two mystery men who will remain unnamed but need to know that they take very good care of their friend — has done just that. It helps that he’s an immensely talented musician, of course… but the secret to his success is going to be those people, and that choice to keep them nearby. We should all be so lucky, I guess.

And that, PopWatchers, is that.