Montgomery, John Michael
John Michael Montgomery
John Michael Montgomery has not allowed stardom to change his Kentuckian country identity. Instead, he revels in it. After his second album, Kickin’ It Up, hit Number One on both the pop and country charts in early 1994, Montgomery maintained residence in his new house in his home county, Jessamine, just outside of Lexington, Kentucky. He also shared his success with his family, continued to play occasionally in the Lexington club where he found his first break, and made time at last for his friends. Although some critics have charged his music with being more formulaic and commercial than creative, Montgomery asserts that he is simply playing the same kind of popular romantic ballads he had been for years before his success.
Before that success, Montgomery struggled for over ten years through often severe financial uncertainty as a “three-sets-a-night honky tonk singer in Lexington” and then for another year ceaselessly on the road promoting his debut album, 1992’s Life’s a Dance, according to Michael McCall of Country Music. Finally his hard work paid off: both albums received platinum awards for over one million sold, and Montgomery himself was named the Academy of Country Music’s best new male artist of the year in 1994. He also became one of only three country musicians to have topped the Billboard 200.
John Michael Montgomery was born on January 20, 1965, in Danville, Kentucky, into a family devoted to country music. By day, Montgomery’s father, Harold, and mother, Carol, worked as meatcutters. By night, however, Montgomery’s parents played together in their own country band, Harold Montgomery and the Kentucky River Express. The Montgomery children, including Eddie, John Michael, and Rebecca, eventually joined their parents in the family band. “Our family, it was a totally different lifestyle,” Montgomery told Richard Cromelin of the Los Angeles Times. “We all lived around this big cravin’, and that was music. We had musicians come over to our living room every night to play and practice. As a kid, at 2 and 3 o’clock in the mornin’, I was allowed to sit there and watch ’em play, and get up the next mornin’ and go to school.”
The family traded their financial security for their passion, however, and eventually buckled under the subsequent strain. His parents divorced when Montgomery was 17; with their parents out of the band, Montgomery and his brother, Eddie, formed a new band called at first Early Tymz and later, John Michael Montgomery and Young Country. These bands played rural Kentucky honky-tonks for a few hundred dollars per week, which
For the Record…
Born January 20, 1965, in Danville, KY; son of Harold and Carol Montgomery (both meatcutters and country musicians).
Played guitar in family band, Harold Montgomery and the Kentucky River Express, 1980; sang and played lead guitar for and cofounded Early Tymz, later called John Michael Montgomery and Young Country, c. 1983; sang under his own name in rural Kentucky honky-tonks, then Lexington, KY, nightclubs, with regular gigs at Austin City Saloon; discovered by Estill Sowards, Congress Inn, Lexington, 1990; signed with Atlantic Records, 1991; released debut album, Life’s a Dance, Atlantic, 1992; toured U.S., 1993; toured with Reba McEntire, 1994.
Awards: American Music Award for favorite new country artist, 1994; named best new male artist, Academy of Country Music, 1994; Country Radio Music Award, single of the year, 1994; platinum records for Life’s a Dance and Kickin’ It Up; Grammy Award nomination for country vocal, male, 1995, for “I Swear.”
Addresses: Record company —Atlantic Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
they split among the several band members, who shared apartments and expenses.
By 1988, however, Montgomery had hit bottom. His run of shows had slowed down, he was working in a liquor store to survive, and he had backed out of a three-year romance with Kelly Welch just a few weeks before their wedding. In addition, his driver’s license had been suspended for nonpayment of a ticket, and when he was pulled aside for speeding in December of 1988, police found prescription muscle relaxers in his pocket and fined him for a misdemeanor count of possession of controlled substances.
When Montgomery left Welch, however, he devoted himself entirely to his music. He sang in Lexington clubs with the band, and in the Austin City Saloon with the house band. Then, in October of 1990, at the Congress Inn, Montgomery was discovered. Estill Sowards, a Pikeville, Kentucky, manager, was impressed and invited Atlantic Records executives to see him. In January of 1991, Montgomery signed with Atlantic Nashville for a one-song deal that grew into the release of his debut album, Life’s a Dance, in October of 1992.
The album’s title song, “Life’s a Dance,” reached Number Four on the country charts, and the second single, the ballad entitled “I Love the Way You Love Me,” hit Number One. In 1993 Montgomery was on the road, performing a total of 204 shows to build a national audience. His target audience was primarily young females, 18 to 24 years old, who loved his power ballads.
In 1993 Montgomery also filmed a few music videos and cut a second album, Kickin’ It Up, released in January of 1994. With the aid of Atlantic’s clever marketing, in which the company withheld distribution of the album until the ballad “I Swear” had already reached Number Seven on the country charts, Montgomery’s second album became an overnight success.
Montgomery also broadened his style somewhat on the latter recording. “I think this second album shows people a little bigger piece of me,” he explained to Michael McCall of Country Music in 1994. “The first album didn’t cover all of my influences. The second album doesn’t cover them all either, as far as the versatility that I feel like I have to give to the people. But Kickin’ It Up certainly comes a lot closer to showing my sides. I’ve always liked to rock it up a little bit.” Also highlighting his proclivity for romantic ballads, Montgomery cited Lionel Richie as a primary influence, as well as Merle Haggard, George Strait, Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, and Kenny Rogers.
With Kickin’ It Up, Montgomery became one of only three country musicians to have topped the Billboard 200. The other two are Garth Brooks, with three albums from 1991 to 1993, and Billy Ray Cyrus, with one in 1992. Co-headlining a tour with Reba McEntire in 1994, Montgomery also won favorite new country artist at the American Music Awards in February of that year. With that status, Montgomery led a trend of successful new country acts, including Faith Hill, Little Texas, Billy Dean, and the Gibson Miller Band.
Montgomery’s recognition has not been universal, however. The Los Angeles Times reported that some reviewers regarded his music with disdain, charging him with a formulaic approach and limited vision as a vocalist. The Times also quoted his response: “The critics—a lot of ’em say I played it safe or whatever. Well, I grew up singin’ hits off the radio, and that’s the kind of songs I want to sing—hits that other people are gonna play in bars that might influence another guy out there one day.”
Toward the summer of 1994, Montgomery slowed his pace finally to enjoy some of his success, which he shared with family and friends. His brother supervised his security, his mother presided over his 10,000-letter-per-month fan club, and his father appeared a few times onstage with him. “We went through the hard times,” Montgomery’s father told Paul Prather of the Lexington Herald-Leader. “If one of us had an apple, the other had an apple. When the good times came along, we still shared.”
Montgomery’s friends concurred. “I consider him one of my best buddies,” his close friend Richie Farmer, 1992 University of Kentucky basketball star, was quoted as saying in Country Music. “I’ve always loved his music. But the thing I want you to understand is, well, you see so many people, once they make it big, they change…. The good ones, according to me, are the ones who stay the same. If John had 10 zillion or if he had a dollar, he’d be the same John. I think that’s what’s special about him.”
Life’s a Dance (includes “Life’s a Dance” and “I Love the Way You Love Me”), Atlantic, 1992.
Kickin’ It Up (includes “I Swear” and “Rope the Moon”), Atlantic, 1994.
Billboard, February 19, 1994; January 22, 1994.
Country Music, May/June 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, October 1, 1993.
Lexington Herald-Leader (KY), March 6, 1994.
Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1994.
Tennessean (Nashville, TN), April 2, 1994.
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