East Kentucky-born Carl Bentley grew up singing in church in and around his hometown of McDowell. At age 10, he was given a Ralph Stanley album featuring Keith Whitley by his father, who was also a musician.
That was all it took. To this day, Bentley still wears the Stanley-Whitley influence, and wears it well. His latest album, in fact, includes a stolid rendition of Stanley’s “Tennessee Truck Drivin’ Man.” And here and there, the Whitley touch comes through subtly but clearly in Bentley’s rich and emotive lead vocals.
Before leaving Kentucky for Indiana, where he went to work for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Bentley got a taste of the spotlight as a regular on the televised Mountain Jamboree in Pikeville, and later, the Conway Barn Dance in Conway.
In Indiana, he played with and toured the Midwest with a regionally popular group called The Indiana Boys. He also recorded a couple albums for a local label. His new self-titled venture is an inspired admixture of classics and his original songs, which stand tall next to compositions by the likes of Larry Sparks, Wade Mainer, and Roger Murrah.
The overall atmospheric throughout is rustic, and delightfully retro. Listening to tunes like Murrah’s and Mark Alan Springer’s “Where the Corn Don’t Grow,” Sparks’ “These Ole Blues” and Bentley’s “Trains Don’t Run Here Anymore,” “Where the Sun Never Shines” and “Pike County Jail,” I can almost close my eyes and envision Bentley holding forth in an old country school house as lonesome winds blow across the hills and hollows outside.
Bentley’s “Closing Mainstreet Down” is a particular standout. It almost perfectly captures the tragedy of life being sucked out of a once-thriving small town by the dynamics of so-called progress.
Bentley and his backing musicians—Bentley on guitar, Clay Hess on banjo, Rick Hayes on bass and mandolin, Tim Crouch on fiddle and Ronnie Stewart on backing vocals—deliver a superb revival of Wade Mainer’s melancholy gospel meditation, “Lonely Tombs.” It’s highlighted by some mighty, mighty fine old-time gospel harmonies.