Never mind that he's had 14 No. 1 records and has sold more than 14 million records since 1991, country music star John Michael Montgomery has never strayed far from his Central Kentucky roots.
He was born in Danville in 1965, was raised in Garrad County and now lives in Lexington, a three-and-a-half hour drive from Nashville.
“I think living around the people I grew up around and the small towns I grew up around, that doesn't let you forget where you came from,” Montgomery said in an early morning phone call from his home in Lexington. “I never wanted to sever the ties to my roots.”
Montgomery grew up in a house full of music. His parents had a country band. His brother, Eddie, of Montgomery Gentry fame, was also in the band. Michael, who played guitar for the group, took over the lead singing role when his parents divorced. He was working in honky tonks when he inked a deal with Atlantic Records in 1991.
Success happened in a hurry for the young baritone. His debut record, “Life's a Dance,” was the only million-selling record by a new country artist on the charts in 1992. Its hit, “I Love the Way You Love Me,” was named Single of the Year by the Academy of Country Music.
In 1994, Montgomery released what is perhaps his most famous single, “I Swear,” which was included on the album “Kickin' It Up.” The album went quadruple platinum. “I Swear” was the No. 1 country hit of the year, according to Billboard, becoming a cross-over hit for All-For-One.
In 1995, the singer released a self-titled record that also sold over four million copies and spawned two more No. 1 hits, “I Can Love You Like That,” and “Sold: The Grundy County Auction Incident.”
When he was riding high, he had opportunities to relocate to Nashville, but turned them down, even though there were a lot of reasons to be in Music City.
“There was a lot of demand on my time,” he explained. “There were a lot of people who wanted you to come to their parties to celebrate this, celebrate that. They wanted to pat you on the back for this, pat you on the back for that.”
That's not what Montgomery had in mind for his career.
“I don't need to go to all those parties for someone to tell me I'm doing a great job,” he noted. “Just put me on the road and let me sing my songs. That's congratulations enough for me.”
Montgomery knows that it's his fans, not the corporate suits, who keep his career alive.
“It's why I do what I do,” he clarified. “I try to stay more connected with them than the CEOs and the politics the town gets wrapped up in.”
Although he's won awards, he insists he's not a “trophy kind of a guy.”
“If I'm doing good, I don't need anyone to remind me I'm doing good,” he clarified. “That's probably why I never really did connect down in Nashville.”
When he started in the music business, one of the things that got him up close and personal with his fans was the traditional “meet and greet,” which usually happens an hour or so before the show.
“I can't remember a time when we didn't do a meet and greet,” the singer noted. “You put aside a little time. Fans come back and say 'Hi.' To me, that was pretty much elementary. It is a time to say 'Thanks' to the fans.”
Montgomery knows that if wasn't for the people who came in to the honky tonks, bars and nightclubs, he wouldn't have had the success he's enjoyed for 20 years.
“Nashville tends to look at them as dollar bill signs,” Montgomery said when speaking of the fans. “My mom and dad were musicians, so I grew up knowing how important the fans are. Some stars think 'Hey, look at me. I'm so talented.' That's how some artists are. They truly are prima donnas. They think they are better than the fans.”
Montgomery knows better.
“I just happen to be able to sing and they can't,” he said with a laugh. “Don't make any more out of it that it is.”
The singer does have respect for one segment of his business.
“When it comes to songwriting, that is a special skill that some people have that I think is pretty unique,” he said.
On his 2008 record, “Time Flies,” Montgomery selected three tunes by Jamey Johnson, who no one would mistake for a Nashville insider.
“He was working on his first album and I saw him a couple of times,” said the singer. “I told him, 'When I go into the studio, I'd like to cut some of your stuff. I really dig it.'”
In the end, Montgomery used Johnson's “What Did I Do,” “Mad Cowboy Disease” and “Let's Get Lost” on the record, the first released under his own label, Stringtown.
Johnson's authentic style seems to fit with Montgomery. It's not the same mold that Nashville uses to make everything sound the same.
“Jamey is a guy who writes and sings his butt off, there is no denying that,” he says of Johnson. “I don't think the Nashville establishment doesn't exactly warm up to him either, because Jamey will do it his way.”
When Montgomery is getting ready to record, he likes to get in his pickup and ride around listening to potential songs.
“When someone sends you a song, it's easy to fall in love too quickly with it,” he disclosed. “It's like dating someone. When you first start going out, it's wonderful, but then you start seeing things you don't like. But if you listen to it for three weeks on repeat and you're not tired of it, I recommend cutting it because it's probably a song that's made for you.”
He thinks that a good song like “I Swear” can stand up to a lot of years on the road.
“A song like that defines you,” he noted. “It's the best of both worlds. You not only get to sing a hit song that defined you as an artist, but you get to make a living with it the rest of your life. That's a pretty good feeling.”
Montgomery knows his signature tune has been sung at a lot of weddings and he's perfectly OK with that.
“Some people might think of me as a wedding singer,” he said. “Hey, that might be what I do when I retire. Just weddings only. A good wedding song is like a good funeral parlor. There's always going to be people getting married, and there's always going to be people dying. I'm not into owing a funeral parlor, so I think I'll just do weddin' songs.”
Retirement's not an option right now. Montgomery tours from May through the end of October. He does some shows in the winter just to “keep the chops from getting rusty,” but he cuts back from a full blown tour.
“It gives me a chance to hang around the house and put my kids and my wife first,” he noted. His daughter turns 16 next month and his son turns 14 in February.
“I've got two teenagers that are wide open,” he said with a laugh. “We've got the teenager syndrome going on right now where I'm the dumbest dad in the world, and I don't know anything about anything. It's that time of life for me right now. Right now, they just laugh at anything I say. I'm dumb as a rock.”
Montgomery doesn't mind being the butt of his kids' jokes when they're at home, but he does insist that “they act like they've got some sense when they go out of the house.”
By staying close to home, both professionally and personally, Michael Montgomery has reaped the benefits of a long career and a successful family life. And he doesn't plan to fix what isn't broken.
“I never was one of those people who couldn't wait to get away from home,” he explained. “When I got out on the road and started traveling, I started missing it. My brother's the same way. That's where they'll lay us to rest, somewhere in Central Kentucky.
Hot August Nights
Saturday, Aug. 25 at Gerald Prim Stadium
** Montgomery will be the featured performer, taking the stage around 7 p.m.
** Jason Helms will be the opening act, followed by Coffey Anderson.
** Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children 6-12, and include access to all-you-can-eat barbecue. Bring your lawn chairs. General admission tickets are available at the Civic Center's box office or by calling 903-885-8071.
**A small number of VIP tickets are available for $25 at Star Country Radio, 930 Gilmer St.
Click here to watch "I Swear," the video.
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