CMT Hot 20 Decade: “Drunk on a Plane,” Dierks Bentley

Editor’s Note: CMT Hot 20 Countdown takes a look back on 10 years of incredible music with Decade, a weekly segment that features a modern country classic that made its greatest impact between 2010 and 2019. This week, Dierks Bentley talks about his 2014 single, “Drunk on a Plane.” CMT Hot 20 Countdown airs at 9/8c Saturday and Sunday mornings.

CMT: Heading into the Riser album after having the success you’ve already had, was there any pressure?

DB: Yeah, I think there was a lot of pressure leading into the Riser album. That was really the first album past my bluegrass record which I put out in 2010, an album called Home that I was really proud of. For Riser, I was working with a new producer, Ross Copperman, and my dad had just passed away and I really feel like I had a lot of dirt to dig into to make an album. The concept behind it was my dad passing away and my son being born, the circle of life, me becoming the riser now that my dad was gone.

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And I had the song “Drunk on a Plane.” I just didn’t know how it fit the album. And I didn’t think it fit. I still don’t think it really fits. I wasn’t even gonna put it on the album because I’m so into making albums over singles. … I’d rather sacrifice a song to make sure the album is intact and has integrity. But I’m really glad I listened to the people around me because we put “Drunk on a Plane” on there and it ended up being one of the biggest songs of my career and I love that song.

So I think the important thing in my career is just listening to people, recognizing that when you’re inside the hurricane, sometimes you can’t really see what’s going on around you. You need to have people who have the macro, the bigger perspective, and can be like, “Hey, trust me. This is a hit song. You wrote it, you should love it, it’s gonna be a big part of your career.” And I can’t imagine my career without “Drunk on a Plane.” I can’t imagine a show without that song in there. It’s a huge part of the night.

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From the crowd perspective, it’s a huge hit. When you perform it, how is it from your perspective?

People come out to our shows, they know there’s a lot of dress-up involved. There’s the Hot Country Knights [Bentley’s ‘90s covers band] that go on 7 and that’s a whole wardrobe situation. And “Drunk on a Plane” probably started a lot of that because in the video I was dressed as a pilot – mustache and the whole thing. So that character carried over into the live show. I never would have thought in my life that I would dress up, put on a costume in my concert. But it became a thing.

And people in the crowd dress up. Guys dressed like pilots, girls are dressed like pilots, guys and girls are dressed like flight attendants. A lot of times I bring people up on stage. So it became a really big moment in the show and actually that plane the fuselage that I came out on the stage in — an actual huge fuselage of an aircraft — is here at Seven Peaks [Bentey’s music festival] on site and fans are climbing all over it, putting bumper stickers on it. So, “Drunk on a Plane” is bigger than just the song. It’s a whole separate entity on its own in the live show.

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So, knowing that it kind of didn’t fit the album, how were you able to reconcile that? When you’re writing all this kind of heavy stuff but you had this song over here. How did that work?

Yeah, it’s funny. You know, the Riser album had the song “Riser,” a huge part of my show, and “I Hold On,” another big part of our show. … I’m always trying to keep peeling the layers back and keep getting as pure as possible. Also you want to have commercial success with the album and have songs on the radio. But I think for me personally, I’m making the albums for me, just like I make a festival based on what I like. And then I hope that the fans like it. That’s one way I know how to do it. If you don’t do it that way it feels like you’re pandering or you’re just trying too hard.

So for me, I made the album for me. “Drunk on a Plane” — it’s on there. Does it fit the album necessarily? Most people would say yes. It’s an album where they love every song on the album and there’s some fun songs on there. But for me personally, I don’t know that it totally fits. But I will reconcile it because it’s been a huge hit. So that made it reconcile just fine. Every time I go on stage and sing this song, or go to the mailbox and find the royalty check for it, I’m like, “Yeah it fits the album pretty good, I’m pretty happy with it.” [Laughs]

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The video is definitely one of the best of the decade. Not only do you get to exercise your sense of humor in the video, but also you’re really a pilot. Tell me about the video.

Yeah, as a fan of country music I don’t know that I’d say the song is a top overall anything. But the video, I feel pretty confident saying, it’s one of the best videos of all time out there. It’s a great video, man. It’s unbelievable. And for me, I enjoy having a few beverages and I’m also a pilot. So the whole concept is so fun for me to be in the cockpit, flying a plane. Our drummer Tony is over there with these huge mutton chops on. He’s just hilarious as it is. He has such great comedic timing. And we’ve got our red Solo cups and our bass player Casey is dressed up as Sergei the flight attendant and some friends of mine were in the video as well. …

We spent about 12 hours inside this fake plane in Los Angeles. It was hot but it was a big party going on and [director Wes Edwards] got the whole shoot done in one day, which is hard to do. Jeff Dye, who was the lead actor from Funny or Die, I’ve kept up with him and he’s hilarious. Josh Hopper, who was the big guy, he’s been in a couple videos now. He’s also in “Somewhere on a Beach.” It’s just everything came together. It was super fun for me to be the pilot as well as the passenger in the band. … The video took on a life of its own. It’s obviously a fan favorite and one of my favorites for sure.

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The first time we heard it at CMT it was at Honky Tonk Central. We did a pop-up performance for Hot 20 and we knew right away, “Oh, that’s gonna be a hit.” How did you feel when you wrote it?

That’s so funny. See, I wrote that song and I played it for a few people. The first reaction I got was, “Man, rednecks don’t fly. No one’s gonna get that song. Airplanes? Country music?” It’s like, really? I’ve been on a lot of Southwest flights with a lot of rednecks and we’ve all been pretty hammered. And the flying and drinking, you sure? Have you ever been on a flight down to Cancun? Um, OK. And then I played it for a crowd somewhere. I don’t think I did a very good job setting it up and the response wasn’t that great. So between the commentary about the song and the reaction I got from the show, I had some hesitation about it. …

So I played it at Honky Tonk Central with you guys when it first came out and saw the reaction in that bar. It was the first time I was like, “Whoa, maybe we’re on to something here.” But that’s what makes music great. There’s no way to quantify it. You can’t predict a hit. You can’t use a computer to create an algorithm that [determines] this is gonna be a hit song. It’s music, man. It goes back before all this stuff was here. Me communicating something to you and something about my voice, the tone of my voice, the subject matter, the melody, it just is an intangible concept. And so that’s the whole game. And sometimes you win, sometimes you lose but with “Drunk on a Plane,” it was definitely a big win.