A “little girl” is leading John Michael Montgomery up the country charts again.
Before the Kentucky native’s eighth album, Brand New Me, comes out on Tuesday (Sept. 26), the first single, “The Little Girl,” has touched hearts and earned enough radio airplay to put it at No. 10 on Billboard’s country singles chart, just seven weeks after its release.
Montgomery joins country.com at 10 p.m. ET Monday (Sept. 25) for the webcast of an MJI Radio Interview with Katie Haas, followed at 11:45 p.m. ET by a live chat with country.com.
Originally, the uptempo title track was to have been the debut single from Montgomery’s new album.
But late in the recording process, new Atlantic Records chief Barry Coburn brought Montgomery “The Little Girl,” a song by Harley Allen, a writer for the publishing company run by Coburn’s wife, Jewel.
With subtlety and taste, the song tells the story of a child whose parents die in a murder-suicide. Brought to a foster home, she attends Sunday School for the first time and recognizes, in a picture, “the Man up there on that cross” as the one who “held me close to His side” on the night her parents died.
The story circulated via e-mail and the Internet before Allen captured it in a song. When Montgomery heard it for the first time, he was “blown away by it” but didn’t necessarily regard it as a candidate for leadoff single from his new album.
“It touches on religion. It touches on drug abuse, on people dying, a little girl being involved in the middle of all this, but they don’t preach it to you,” says Montgomery, in Nashville from Kentucky recently for a round of interviews.
“It’s not in somebody’s face. It’s not telling anybody out there bad, bad, bad,” he continues. “It’s a story that this little girl told her Sunday School teacher. As long as you’re not preaching to people, or anything like that, people like stories like that.”
Montgomery has had great songs in the past. “I Swear” and “I Can Love You Like That” both could be considered signature tunes. And “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)” never fails to get fans on their feet and clapping when he performs it in concert, he says.
“The Little Girl” has a markedly different effect. Montgomery normally places the song in the middle of his show. He sets it up by urging people to pay close attention to the words. When he sings, it’s “unbelievable how quiet it gets,” he says.
And when he finishes, “some sit like they’ve just been hit by a truck,” Montgomery observes. “Some stand and give me an ovation. Some just clap. Because of this deep subject matter, people are touched in different ways by the song. It has an unbelievable effect on people, and it all ain’t the same effect.”
Working with new co-producers Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon, Montgomery came up with a simple but effective musical setting for “The Little Girl.” Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski, her bandmate in Union Station, sing backing vocals. Tyminski plays mandolin.
Since finding his way to Nashville from Central Kentucky in the early ’90s, Montgomery has had a number of different producers including Doug Johnson, Scott Hendricks, Csaba Petocz and, most recently, Garth Fundis.
Last year’s Fundis-produced album, Home to You, sold 250,000 copies according to SoundScan — respectable numbers, but a disappointment compared to the former Horizon Award winner’s early career releases such as Life’s a Dance (triple platinum), Kickin’ It Up (quadruple platinum) and John Michael Montgomery (quadruple platinum).
Wilson and Cannon were suggested to Montgomery by Coburn, who was installed as chief at Atlantic in August 1999, weeks after release of Home to You. Having Coburn in charge, with a new staff, has been like going back to the start of his career, Montgomery says, when he was just getting to know everyone and there was enthusiasm and excitement for his music.
More importantly, Coburn has earned Montgomery’s respect.
“I’m going to put my trust in him and stay out of his way,” Montgomery says. “He’s brought a lot of good ideas to the table. I think he wants it bad. He wants to turn this label around and he wants to be successful.”
The transformation at his label and in his own outlook is reflected in the title of the new album and in the breezy title track, Montgomery says. “I feel like I’m more mature as an artist. I’ve got a whole new label behind me here,” he states again. “The song’s not preaching to nobody, it’s just got a nice message to it. Everybody has to go to work every day, and I think it could change a person’s mood, you know? It changed mine.”