Montgomery Gentry Top Dogs at Sony Show

Never follow Montgomery Gentry with a fireworks display. Nobody will notice the fireworks. The walls of Nashville’s Coliseum were oscillating like tuning forks by the time the black-clad Kentucky duo took their bow Saturday night (June 7) to close out Sony Music’s Fan Fair show. As concertgoers rushed out to their cars, the rockets exploding overhead sounded as placid as corn popping in comparison.

The Sony extravaganza, which ran from 7 to 10:30 p.m., also featured performances by Clint Daniels, Tammy Cochran, Colt Prather, Buddy Jewell, Cledus T. Judd, Brad Martin, Patty Loveless and Marty Stuart, who served as master of ceremonies. Although the show’s producers — and fans — had steeled themselves for rain, the clouds cleared away long before the music started.

“I was wanting to hug me a waterlogged Fan Fair woman tonight,” Stuart sighed to the crowd, “but the sun came out.”

Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry specialize in songs that are a volatile brew of truculence and simple-mindedness, but no one else in country music relates to a crowd better or works as hard to keep up the enthusiasm. In Montgomery’s eager, guileless grin and Gentry’s riveting stare, we see the visages of men who like their fans and are determined to involve them at the most visceral level.

Backed by a band that seemed to view performance as combat, the duo blasted into their set with “All Night Long,” a choice that brought most of the audience to its feet. When they moved on to “Bad for Good,” Montgomery, brandishing his trademark mike stand, ran the entire length of the stage — not just his own platform but the one adjacent to it where another band was setting up. The crowd loved it. The wide aisle in front of the stages from which fans were to take pictures was packed solid from end to end by the time MG segued into “Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm.” Just as Montgomery was introducing the pair’s current single, “Speed,” John Grady, the new Sony/Nashville president, interrupted to present them gold records for My Town. (A “gold” designation means that 500,000 copies of the album have been shipped to record stores.) Once the regular publicity photos were taken, Montgomery asked that another be shot that showed them standing with their backs to the large and visibly animated audience.

In a rambling but fiery prelude, Gentry dedicated “Hell Yeah” to the workers, students and soldiers who “bust their asses” at work in order to have the right to party. As is common by now, Montgomery introduced “My Town” by saying that if anyone tries to take over his town, “we’ll kick their asses.” Less clear than his resolve was the question of why anyone would want to take over a town in which the mill is closed, the water tower gone and the church and diner the only forms of civic amusement. Montgomery Gentry wrapped the evening with their 1999 hit, “Hillbilly Shoes.”

Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives (surely the cheekiest and funniest band name ever coined) turned in a rousing but too-brief set. The band has such a firm and determined drive that its music sounds almost martial as it rolls out from the speakers. They began with Neil Young’s “Get Back to the Country” and thereafter ranged through Billy Hill’s “Too Much Month at the End of the Money” and the Stuart/Travis Tritt hit, “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’.” Stuart said he wanted to send “Too Much Month” up to the White House. “With all due respect,” he added, “you know what I mean.”

Ready to roll out a new album, Loveless seemed to be distancing herself from her bluegrass hues of last year. But she still leaned heavily on the fiddle to create mood. She dedicated “Don’t Toss Us Away,” a 1989 hit, to Tony Brown, the man who produced it and who, she said, was in the audience. Brown, now the co-chair of Universal South Records, is recovering from a near-fatal head injury. Loveless brought Rodney Crowell onstage to sing “Lovin’ All Night,” a song he wrote and had a single on in 1992. She said that she and Crowell had begun singing the song last year on the Down From the Mountain tour and that she will be releasing it soon as the first single from her new album, On Your Way Home. Loveless raided the distant past for most of her program, offering “You Can Feel Bad” (1995), “Blame It on Your Heart” (1993) and the majestic “Here I Am” (1994).

Departing from his usual role as host and singing dramatically to pre-recorded tracks, Judd showed himself to be the complete crooner. “I want to make an announcement before I ruin four good country songs,” the comedian said. “There’s a party after this show on Montgomery Gentry’s bus, and everybody here’s invited.” The two songs he “ruined” first were “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” which emerged as “It’s a Great Day to Be a Guy,” and “Breathe,” which he gasped out as “Breath.” His third number was a real showstopper — a duet with George Jones (Jones in absentia, but his voice recorded) called “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Pop.” A cry from the traditionalist wilderness, it takes such stars as LeAnn Rimes, SHeDAISY and Shania Twain to task for their pop forays. Judd, who referred to himself as “probably the highest paid karaoke singer in America,” said Jones agreed to record with him as soon as he told him the title. Jones also sang with Barbara Mandrell on the original, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.” Judd won a standing ovation with his finale, “My Crowd,” a fan-flattering parody of “My Town.”

Fans rushed the stage to take pictures of Buddy Jewell, treating him like the superstar he may very well become given the momentum he’s achieved by winning the Nashville Star talent contest and getting an album contract with Sony. He sang four songs but earned the most applause for his high-charting first single, “Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song).” Tammy Cochran did her hits — “I Cry,” “Angels in Waiting” and “Life Happened” — but really raised the attention level when she essayed a cover of Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl Is Gonna Go Bad.” Cochran’s version was more throbbing and sensual than the original and hot enough to lure Stuart onstage for an impromptu duet.

Martin sang on Sony’s Fan Fair show last year (as did Cochran, Loveless and Montgomery Gentry) and did essentially the same program this year. That’s not a criticism. He has some durable material, notably “Before I Knew Better” and “Damn the Whiskey.” Daniels, who opened the show, recorded earlier for Arista Records and may be remembered for the singles “A Fool’s Progress” and “When I Grow Up.” Buoyed by a strong voice and movie-star looks, he impressed the crowd with such self-penned pieces as “If I’d Loved You” and “Brokenheartsville” (the Joe Nichols hit). He even did a creditable cover of the George Jones chestnut, “White Lightnin’.”

Stuart described new Sony artist Colt Prather as a “guitar slinger.” He is that. In fact, his guitar slinging was so loud and upfront that it sometimes obscured his take-charge voice, which sounds a lot like a smoother Hank Williams Jr.

This year’s Sony show didn’t have quite the crowd-altering impact of last year’s, when such dramatic figures as Ty Herndon, Billy Ray Cyrus and Travis Tritt took turns owning the stage. But there was more nuance and variety in this one. Besides, with Montgomery Gentry around, how much more drama would you want?