A few years back, a band called Hot Country Knights began opening amphitheater and arena dates for country star Dierks Bentley. The group stuck out as the most inept, inappropriate and unprofessional act in the lineup, with the most memorable hair, most energetic thrusting, and most zipper-straining Wrangler jeans. This was a sextet whose members stepped all over each other in their attempts to show off, let their rivalries spill into set-disrupting tantrums and bickered over which rollicking honky-tonk tunes to play and who would get to sing them.
The Knights appeared to have avoided the process by which contemporary country performers become more polished while rising through the industry ranks, and also entirely ignored a few generations’ worth of stylistic trends. They acted like they’d just stepped right out of some country bar in 1992.
On the phone one April afternoon, the lead singer impatiently identifies himself as Douglas “Doug” Douglason and his group as “the greatest ’90s country cover band of all time,” punctuating the declaration with a sophomoric, “Duh.” Lest there be any confusion about the Knights’ significance, he insists, “We take other people’s songs and we sing them and we make them great. We make them the greatest hits.”
To hear Douglason tell it, the band’s greatest achievement for decades was holding down a restaurant gig at a spot called Teasers, 45 minutes outside of Nashville: “We’ve sold the most wings ever on Tuesday night in the entire county, just because people love seeing us and eating wings at the same time.”
Otherwise, the supposedly veteran outfit — rounded out by bassist Trevor Travis, guitarist Marty Ray “Rayro” Roburn, fiddler Terotej “Terry” Dvoraczekynski, steel guitarist Barry Van Ricky and drummer Monte Montgomery — had little to show for its long tenure. The group allegedly counted as early peers a number of country acts who went on to stardom, including Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw. The Knights’ debut album, The K is Silent, makes the case that it’s the true, undiluted embodiment of the ’90s.
“We wanted to take back a lot of the sounds that we are responsible for,” says Douglason. “You’d probably hear the album and go, ‘Oh, that sounds like this, that sounds like that,’ but it’s actually those people stealing from us over the years.”
That would include the frisky line dance tune “Moose Knuckle Shuffle,” a dead ringer for a 1994 Tracy Byrd hit called “Watermelon Crawl.” The Knights’ version, however, farcically dances around a favorite crotch-accentuating, macho showboating theme. “Moose Knuckle is a town we’re from originally,” says Douglason. “It’s also what happens when you hike your jeans up really high.”
In keeping with Douglason’s delusions of grandeur, he’s reluctant to credit Bentley as patron of the project. “’90s country’s hot right now,” Douglason scoffs. “Everyone’s doing the thing and they’re trying to find the source, like they always do. They found us and they’re trying to ride the mullet to success. And I think Dirk Brantley’s probably having a little downturn in his career, and he sees how hot the Hot Country Knights are. So yeah, we let him come in the studio and pretend like he’s producing.”
At least, that’s Douglason’s side of the story. He claims to be speaking from inside his van, parked in front of Bentley’s home, and makes a show of handing over the phone, stepping out of the vehicle to shout his summons with a cavalier mispronunciation: “Jerks Gentley! She wants to talk to you.”
After some rustling sounds, the gregarious speaker now on the line identifies himself as Bentley. He explains that he was grateful to get to open for the Knights back when he was a nervous newbie. “So this is my chance to give back to them, help these guys out and [they’ll] finally get the chance to be heard by more than just the 200 people that go see them every night down there at Teasers,” he says. “It was kind of like a good deed for me to do this, I think.”
This is all very elaborate theater. Douglason and Bentley apparently differ in demeanor, but they share the same brisk speech pattern, because they’re the same person. Bentley doesn’t often break the fourth wall when he’s playing his dual roles in the Knights narrative, but being asked to do it in this interview comes as a relief. “I don’t like putting my head inside Doug’s head and thinking what Doug would say on certain questions,” he says.
Though there was no such figure as Douglason and no such place as Teasers, soon after Bentley moved to town from Arizona in 1994, he did pore over footage of robust country personalities of the past in his archiving gig at now-defunct cable station The Nashville Network; he also fell under the tutelage of living bluegrass legends at the storied Station Inn. By the early 2000s, he was emerging as a multifaceted hit-maker, who delivered mischievous, country-rocking radio bait, left room for conceptual approaches and kept company with modern string band virtuosos. He was, and is, considered a good citizen of the country community, deemed worthy of membership in the venerable Grand Ole Opry just a couple of years into his recording career and handpicked to pay homage to Ricky Skaggs at a ceremonial affair for the Country Music Hall of Fame’s 2018 inductees.
So it might seem like quite the stretch for Bentley to inhabit a playfully perverse character like Douglason. It’s also more than a little surprising that a headliner at Bentley’s level and the longtime members of his band — bassist Cassady Feasby, drummer Steve Misamore, guitarist Ben Helson, multi-instrumentalist Dan Hochhalter and steel guitarist Tim Sergent — would, under normal circumstances, be willing to multiply their touring workloads, going to the trouble of suiting up and bringing outlandish alter egos to life, when they also have to deliver the marquee set each night. Bentley used to be able to fit his stage clothes, usually a T-shirt and jeans, in his backpack, but now has to haul a wardrobe case full of the group’s garishly retro gear, including mullet wigs, stone-washed denim, leather vests and bold, patterned Western shirts.
They dreamed up their ’90s side project while reminiscing about playing covers for tips in the tourist honky-tonks on Lower Broadway. At first content to relive those days from a comfortable distance, they began booking occasional club gigs in Nashville in 2015, sometimes for industry crowds. Bentley admits that adding the act to his tour a few years later required a real leap. “Here I am pulling a banana out of my bass player’s fly and taking a bite out of it, you know, the ridiculous stage pranks that happen,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m going to lose my whole career. Everything I’ve worked so hard for is going to go away.’ ”
But he quickly decided he and his band shouldn’t deny themselves such a fun outlet. “It’s what we look forward to more than anything else, honestly,” he says.
Bentley also had to win over — or more accurately, wear down — the person entrusted with balancing his creative gratification with his commercial success and Nashville stature. “My manager, Mary Hilliard [Harrington], is amazing,” he chuckles. “I mean, she tried for years to get us to stop doing it. She was like, ‘What are you guys doing?’ ”
There are imperfect analogues for what the Knights are doing: the heavy metal satire of the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap; the LA outfit Steel Panther, which gleefully burlesques hair metal excesses; and Wheeler Walker Jr., a smutty, surly outlaw performer character created by the comedian Ben Hoffman, previously known for nonmusical comedy. But the greater sense of context, the long tradition of country performers creating comedic characters that exaggerated stereotypes, has largely receded from view.
“In the earlier days of country music, everyone included comedy as part of their act,” affirms Brenda Colladay, vice president of museum services at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and previously the Opry’s museum and photograph curator. “There was a real desire to put on a complete show and give audiences a real range of emotional experiences.”
She reels off examples: Uncle Dave Macon, Sarie and Sally, Minnie Pearl, Bill Carlisle, Homer & Jethro, the Statler Brothers’ offshoot Lester “Roadhog” Moran & the Cadillac Cowboys, and Ferlin Husky, who also got a major label record deal for his alter ego, Simon Crum.
Husky and Crum, who were signed to the very same label as Bentley and the Knights, embodied a contrast accentuated by many performers, between their actual musical finesse and the clumsiness of the characters they inhabited. The humor landed best with country crowds when it was a fond, skillful and knowing send-up of perceptions of rough-around-the-edges, rural rubes. “They were designed to appeal to an audience who knew the kinds of people that they were based on, who understood that it was over the top, but done with a real sense of affection,” says Colladay.
The Knights seized on the red-blooded bravado of ’90s country’s male stars as a target early in the wave of nostalgia for the era. “There’s always ebbs and flows and people trying to go more authentic, more country or more acoustic,” Bentley reflects. “There’s just something happening in Nashville the last few years that people are reminiscing about those sounds and those people, I think, just how much fun the ’90s were, or at least appeared to be.”
In the making of The K is Silent, the Knights transitioned from covers to originals. Bentley leaned on his core songwriting and studio collaborators Jim Beavers, Brett Beavers and Jon Randall — all of whom backed big names or, in Randall’s case, had a record deal, during the ’90s — to nail the nuances on the album. “Then It Rained” is a pensive, minor key narrative that mirrors the epic, tension-stoking storytelling of Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls,” only the newer tune builds up great anticipation, but delivers no action aside from precipitation. “Kings of Neon” riffs on the muscular, barroom boogieing of Brooks & Dunn. “Asphalt” lends winking, sexual subtext to the wistful restlessness of the familiar road song template.
Bentley says there was an element of “trying to make your buddies laugh,” but they also had a range of insider and casual audiences in mind. “When you’re writing the songs it helps, and certainly being in the studio, just knowing how to add little flourishes here and there that pay homage to the great records of the ’90s that most fans probably won’t pick up on, but hardcore fans and people that work in this 615 area code would get and be like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool.'”
Some of the musical inside jokes, like excessive modulations to higher keys, poke at the drama-inflating techniques of power balladry, while others are deliberate gaffs, like the plink of a guitar pick being dropped into a soundhole or runaway instrumental vamp, that make famously reliable Music Row pros out to be disheveled and undisciplined players.
All of those tricks can be found in the two songs that feature guest vocalists who were on the charts in the ’90s, and are in on the jokes now. Travis Tritt, whose energetic concerts inspired some of Douglason’s aerobic antics, was game enough to lend his voice to the high-octane, down-home dating advice tune “Pick Her Up,” and Terri Clark dared to trade lustful lines with a mostly undressed Douglason on a brass bed in the soft-focus clip for “You Make It Hard,” a ballad reminiscent of a Tim McGraw and Faith Hill pairing, only rife with double entendres about arousal.
“For Travis to so quickly jump on board with this project and put his legacy on something with a bunch of us jackasses said a lot,” Bentley notes appreciatively. “And certainly for Terri, the same thing. I mean, I call her up and say, ‘I need you to put your real name on this. I get to have a pseudonym. You don’t. I need Terri Clark’s name on this album.’ ”
Before the entire concert season was postponed, Hot Country Knights was planning a short tour to promote the LP. For the first time, the act was meant to be the main event. The band was tightening up its repertoire and trying to make its slapstick gags more effective.
Bentley says the entire process brings to mind a Dolly Parton quote: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” He offers his own version: “It takes a lot of smarts to look that dumb onstage, and a lot of time to rehearse to come across as the idiots that we do.”
For a self-aware achiever like him, used to balancing varied priorities in the spotlight, not taking himself too seriously holds real appeal.