by Chris Willman
As the annual industry conference Country Radio Seminar got underway in Nashville Wednesday night, Garth Brooks could be found doing a secret club show. But, amazingly enough, that wasn’t even the hottest 1990s revivalism ticket in town. There was an even bigger buzz about a ’90s-themed showcase featuring the likes of Douglas Douglason, Shelton Van Ricky, and his sister Shelby Shelton. If those names sound unfamiliar, they should — they have, until now, existed solely in the imaginations of Dierks Bentley and his band. They invited a few hundred guests to the Stage to see the debut of Hot Country Knights, their fictional and bewigged cover group. Guests including Miranda Lambert, Kip Moore, Randy Houser, and Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley got in on the joke, too, in or out of period costume.
Bentley has been teasing fans with the Hot Country Knights concept for a while, setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts for the pseudo-group and some of its imaginary members. The conceit is that the Knights were Nashville’s greatest cover band before breaking up over severe intra-band conflicts on the eve of Y2K… with their personalities, wardrobes, and musical tastes apparently all having been in hibernation for the last 15 years. The Spinal Tap-style comedy occurred not just between songs but also during, as Bentley and the group’s other lead singer (played by his real-life bass player, Cassady Feasby) battled for control of the band and gave each other the middle finger even in the middle of songs. But there was nothing unduly funny about the music itself, as the Hot Country Knights ripped through two hours of extremely well-rehearsed material, mostly overlooking potentially campy ’90s songs and concentrating on the era’s harder-rocking hits.
Lambert, wearing a headband and stealing Bentley’s colorful sunglasses to play the role of Shelby Shelton, brought the house down with her rendition of Shania Twain’s “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” Her voice wasn’t nearly as high as Kelley’s, who, playing “Ronnie Buns,” made good on his promise to stretch a falsetto note on “My Maria” out to unreasonable lengths; he also did some 2010s-style butt-wiggling you won’t usually find in Lady A’s act. In contrast to Kelley’s hilariously dated Western wear, ballcap-wearing Kip Moore was perhaps a bit too embarrassed to dress up in period garb for the occasion, and thus played himself (as Bentley’s character, ever stuck in the past, failed to recognize his famous duet partner). Though nobody held it against him, Moore was also the only guest unable to keep a straight face through the comedy, cracking up repeatedly as he tackled David Lee Murphy’s “Dust on the Bottle.”
"This s—- again?" Bentley said more than once during the show, as he battled for control of the lead vocals with his surlier looking counterpart. Midway through the show, these two bickering bandmates seemed to put their middle fingers away and forged a peace. They launched into John Michael Montgomery’s "Grundy County Auction," figuring that "he (Montgomery) solves everything." Bentley’s Doug Douglason was nicer to his Slash-styled lead guitar player, holding a box fan up to the guitarist’s hair to create a wind effect, then, when that failed, just blowing on his locks. An encore was inevitable, if only because a pre-recorded chant of "One more song!" was pumped loudly over the sound system. Yet the encore choice of Travis Tritt’s "T-R-O-U-B-L-E" inevitably proved prophetic, climaxing with the bass player smashing Shelton’s acoustic guitar to bits, leading to a staged fistfight that went from the stage into the audience and eventually out the door into the Nashville snowfall.
Also turning in an expert musical-comedy turn was Bentley’s fiddle-player and real-life band leader, Dan Holchalter, who turned out to be a slumming Russian violinist, Terotej “Terry” Dvoraczekinsky. The Russkie fiddler went from being the group’s most cheerful number to swilling vodka, eventually taking over the microphone to do a heavily accented and deeply bitter version of “Achy Breaky Heart,” one of the set’s few truly campy choices.
Among the other song choices: Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” as the opener, plus Collin Raye’s “Little Rock,” Shenandoah’s “Church on Cumberland Road,” Tracy Byrd’s “Watermelon Crawl,” Sawyer Brown’s “Some Girls Do,” and Mark Chesnutt’s “Too Cold at Home” (sung by Randy Hauser in a seeming impression of John Anderson).
Given the weeks or months of rehearsal that went into these rock-solid covers, not to mention the connective comedy tissue, will the Knights see the light of day anywhere besides CRS? Bentley’s rep says a few more surprise gigs may occur over the next few months. A suggestion: Even though Moore appeared here because he’s been booked as Bentley’s opening act on tour this summer, it might not be too late to rethink things and have Dierks and his band open for themselves… even if the Knights would be likely to hold out for a headlining slot.