Back Alley Blues
Nashville makes many sounds. It sounds country, pop, and by all means ‘radio-friendly.’ But there’s a wrinkle in Nashville’s genre status that’s begging for soulful folk music. The sound that returns people to their roots, but their ear hasn’t quite settled on. Bentley Caldwell is forming that sound. Soulful as an Otis Redding record, Bentley’s catalog seems as though it would be more at home in a dusty old record shop, but is characterized by his thrilling lyrics, which soothe the ear of the 21st century.
Raised in Paducah, Kentucky, Caldwell had a traditional upbringing and sang in both youth and men’s choir in his little hometown Baptist church. The summer before Bentley’s senior year, he was selected for Kentucky Governor’s School of the Arts. He was also offered a scholarship to Western Kentucky University for vocal music, but declined it and went to community college for a few years instead. While he was there, he ended up winning the last ticket to see BB King perform a sold out show. “He looked like a Lego man onstage. I felt his performance all the way from my seat in the nosebleed section and deep in my chest.. I walked out of that show and my life was forever changed. I had to sing and play the blues.. or something as close to it as possible,” said Bentley. He later transferred to Western Kentucky, and after a brief stint as a history major, quickly embraced the strange pull of what he loved leading him down a different path. Without hesitation, he switched his major and began learning vocal techniques he would later use. Bentley found his voice, and slowly started to realize that he could use it for a living. Upon graduation, Bentley taught English in South Korea for two years. South Korea provided a change in creative space where he learned to play guitar. He moved back to Paducah, gained the confidence to play open mic nights, and began writing songs. Shortly after, his job at the time relocated him to Nashville, an almost startling turn for someone who was beginning to form his soulful, emotion-heavy groove.
Growing up in a single parent home, Bentley acknowledges how much his mother shaped him into who he is today. While growing up, she only allowed gospel and Christian music, with a little old-school soul thrown in. “We were poor, but we didn’t know it. She worked so hard to provide for my brother and I, and there was always love in the house. Mom would take us to downtown Paducah on Saturdays and we'd browse the boxes for 45's to play on our record player. We'd walk away with ten 45's for next to nothing,” said Bentley. "I remember listening to some of the greatest soul voices ever and just being in awe of the raw emotion." The music of his early years shaped him, with his influences now being the likes of Otis Redding, Ray Charles, and Teddy Pendergrass. His mother passed away suddenly in 2013 and kindled a dark but introspective time for him. On the threshold of self-destruction, he felt as if
he had been in Nashville for several years, but nothing was working out, and he wasn’t taking music seriously. Working through the pain from the loss of his mother, Caldwell channeled his energy into pursuing what he really wanted. In November of 2013, he recorded his first EP, and released it the following March on his mother’s birthday. A Place To Be channeled raw emotion, depth, and emotionally captured the thoughts he wrestled with at the time. The EP documents the human condition, as Bentley calls it, and surveys life on a reflective, honest level. It’s easy to see his mother’s impact on him in holding his values close, and the light she projects over his life is clear to everyone who hears Caldwell’s honest folk lyrics.
One of the most interesting things about Bentley’s music is the sincerity in his tone. It resonates, and yet bends to the soulful intonations, similar to singing style of John Legend or Amos Lee. With Caldwell being magnetized towards singers such as Ray Lamontagne, Jamie Cullum, and other soul greats, it’s easy to want to place a traditional genre on him and watch his style flourish within it, but that doesn’t work. Caldwell’s unique approach to every note leaves his audience holding on to see where he lands. His vocals have a mysterious and suspenseful vibe, and paired with his crisp, folk-soul music, he captivates and commands attention. His candid expression within his lyrics instantly fastens his fans to him, almost as if whoever listens is instantly family. There’s a sincere honesty in his sound, and its simplicity rings through the end of each note. Bentley was recently nominated “Nashville’s Best Emerging Artist of 2014” by Deli Magazine and is currently writing music for a new EP, to be released in 2016. In his music, Bentley chooses emotion over all other aspects of his writing. “Whether it be physically, mentally, or emotionally, music should move you,” he says. "If it doesn’t, it wasn’t created from the soul."