Humor's an understated strong suit of '90s country. Chuckling at Confederate Railroad's "Elvis and Andy" or the late Joe Diffie's "Pickup Man" does not necessarily equate hipster irony. Instead, both songs' comedic elements aged well and still connect with serious country music fans and those simply amused by mullets.
Dierks Bentley, an artist who's already proven he can bounce between pop-friendly hits and bluegrass homages without skipping a beat, grasps the light-heartedness of some '90s country hits and, more obviously, the appeal of replacing the usual comedic country look (overalls and a straw hat) with an all neon, all over aesthetic, from his wrap-around shades down to his track suit.
At least that feels like the point of Bentley and his backing band's reinvention as The Hot Country Knights. The group's debut album The K is Silent (Capitol Records Nashville) arrives May 1. Bentley doubles as its producer and the band's lead singer Douglas "Doug" Douglason.
During the buildup to the album's release, Bentley has conducted interviews as Douglason, a conceited bar band flunky. In pro wrestling terms, it's a kayfabe press tour, offering little insight into Bentley's mindset while further fleshing out the backstories of Douglason and fellow Knights Trevor Travis (bass guitar), Marty Ray "Rayro" Roburn (lead guitar), Terotej "Terry" Dvoraczekynski (fiddle), Barry Van Ricky (steel guitar), and Monte Montgomery (percussion).
As the Douglason alter ego, Bentley sneaks in a few hat-tips, including a comparison of the Knight's "Then It Rained" to Garth Brooks' "The Thunder Rolls."
"I know it steps a little bit on the Garth thing," he said during a Zoom press event attended by Wide Open Country. "We're hoping he sues us because we've only had bad publicity. Having Travis Tritt on the record at the beginning, having Terri Clark at the end and having a Garth Brooks lawsuit in the middle is kind of genius."
Tritt appears on the seriously good honky tonk stomper "Pick Her Up," while Clark helps Douglason sing "You Make It Hard," a love ballad featuring double entendres no more vulgar than the now-tame lyrics of Freddie Hart or Conway Twitty.
Both Tritt and Clark uphold tradition, so their involvement should've eased any concerns that Bentley's outlandish vision might accidentally demean his '90's predecessors or his country radio peers. Bentley knows his stuff too, which helped him properly lampoon the line dancing craze with the Knights' "Moose Knuckle Shuffle."
Moments from the livestream interview and other press involving the Douglason character point to two obvious comedy acts. His referring to the Ryman Auditorium as the "Roman Auditorium" or "that church downtown" bears a slight resemblance to the hillbilly humor of Lester "Roadhog" Moran, an alter ego of the late Statler Brothers member Harold Reid. And of course, the Knight's hyper-sexualized delusions of grandeur will forever draw comparisons to Wheeler Walker Jr.
Yet The Hot Country Knights differ from those acts in positive ways. Roadhog routines incorporated purposefully sloppy music, while the Knights play with the same precision as the '90s top bands and session musicians. Ole Wheeler catered to fans with no interest in mainstream country music, while Douglason and his crew play in the big leagues: a position from which they remind Music City that one of its most ballyhooed decades offered more than the melodies recaptured by Luke Combs, Jon Pardi and Ashley McBryde.
Of course, we may not get The Hot Country Knights joke until their album cycle reaches its completion, including the rescheduling of One Knight Stand Tour dates postponed due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Chances are, the punchline then will have more to do with the funniness and fun of '90's country than irony or toilet humor.
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