Most of the time, artists go looking for fame. Many hopefuls spend years slinging it out in the nation’s honky-tonks, honing their craft while working various day jobs to save enough money to make their move to Nashville in the attempt to realize their dreams to make the big-time. For John Michael Montgomery, however, the scenario was different.
By now, most people who follow the career of CMT’s August Showcase Artist know that Montgomery was discovered by Atlantic Records in 1991, singing in the Austin City Saloon in Lexington, Ky. Born and raised in nearby Nicholasville, Montgomery had grown up in a musical family, playing and singing in the family band that included his father, mother and older brother Eddie (who is now making waves on the country charts as one half of the duo Montgomery Gentry). When Atlantic’s Rick Blackburn signed him, 1992’s Life’s a Dance album poised John Michael to make the leap from local hero to national celebrity. His second single, “I Love the Way You Love Me,” went to No. 1 for two weeks, and life was suddenly very different for the quiet Kentuckian.
“Coming out of the nightclubs and all of a sudden becoming a star, you are really thrown out there,” remembers John Michael, who has just released his seventh album, Home to You. “There is no way you could ever prepare for it. You get thrust into the media, there’s a frenzy of people around, and you have no experience at all to know how to deal with it. Being on stage and performing is no problem, but when you have to start trying to become a star and be a professional and trying to deal with such a change of life overnight, it’s a challenge.
“Every artist who’s trying to make it basically has three goals. It’s like, ‘I would love to be able to cut a major album and have a hit record, go out on the road on tour and have seats filled with fans and maybe even win an award.’ I am so grateful to have experienced those things. But the other side of it is that you are on a plane or bus for hours, and then you’re in a hotel room with just the four walls around you, living out of a little bag of clothes and maybe you don’t pack enough underwear or socks, and for a person like me who just cannot stand to be cooped up like that, it can get really hard. That part is like watching the grass grow.”
Although there were business pros and mentors around to ease the transition from everyday guy to country heartthrob, like label chief Rick Blackburn and original producer Doug Johnson, the strain on Montgomery continued to build and eventually became overwhelming. Despite scoring 14 No. 1 singles, selling over 14 million albums and receiving numerous awards including the Country Music Association’s prestigious Horizon Award in 1994, John Michael was facing difficult times as well. His greatest influence, his father Harold, died in 1994, and Montgomery discovered that his voice seemed to be weakening. In a move some called risky for his career, John Michael made the decision to take a break.
“I’d embarrassed myself on TV trying to sing, and I was having a lot of vocal problems. Back then I was so afraid that if I said no I would make everybody mad. But when my voice left me in ’95, I told my management that I was going to go to the doctor and take a year off in ’96. I didn’t know if I was going to come back or not, I didn’t know if I even wanted to come back. People told me it was going to be bad for my career and I thought, `Man, here I am struggling mentally and physically, and these people are more worried about my success making them lots of money than they are about my personal well-being.”
After much soul-searching, John Michael did take 1996 to recover physically and make some decisions about his personal and professional future. After a 1997 Greatest Hits release, Montgomery emerged with a renewed outlook, optimistic for his future but with the wisdom his past had taught him.
“I had to put things into perspective,” he recounts. “Although I wasn’t sure I would have a career anymore, my health was back and that’s what counted.”
He need not have worried; the fans were waiting. 1998’s Leave a Mark yielded three hits — “Love Workin’ On You,” “Cover You with Kisses” and “Hold on to Me.” When it was time to return to the studio to record the new Home to You project, Montgomery tapped Garth Fundis (Trisha Yearwood, Keith Whitley, Don Williams) to produce. Working with Fundis was a long-time wish come true.
“The reason I like him so much was mostly because of all the great Keith Whitley records he had cut,” John Michael says of his producer. “He’s got the ability to cut some unique records, a wonderful ear for the music, and that’s why I’ve wanted to hook up with him for so long. For several years he was always tied up with other production or label responsibilities, so when Garth was finally available, I wanted to make the opportunity happen. I truly think it was a pretty magical moment for both of us.”
Atlantic Sales and Marketing Vice President Bob Heatherly agrees that John Michael’s re-emergence and work with Fundis has been good for Montgomery.
“(John Michael) had a chance to take a little time off and do more with his family,” he recently told Billboard magazine. “He’s so excited because of the new association with Garth Fundis. It’s great to see him happy, with a chance to work with someone he’s admired so much over the years. I think Garth has just brought something special out in him.”
Another new association that has John Michael excited is the appearance of Waylon Jennings on his album. Jennings co-wrote two cuts, “Your Love Lingers On” and “Nothing Catches Jesus by Surprise.” On an upcoming episode of CMT Showcase (airs Fridays at 11:30 p.m., Saturdays at 12:30 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 10 a.m. and 10 p.m., all times Eastern), Waylon even makes a special appearance with Montgomery to sing the latter tune. Montgomery was thrilled to have the opportunity to sing with one of his heroes.
“Probably the most unique song I have ever cut is ‘Nothing Catches Jesus by Surprise,'” he enthuses. “I think it has tremendous possibilities. When Waylon came in to do CMT Showcase with me, it was a magical experience. I was definitely overwhelmed. Waylon is such a unique individual and artist, and I grew up respecting him so much. To be able to reconnect with somebody like that was definitely one of the highlights of my career. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be able to say you have done that. Wow.”
With a career whose future may once have been in doubt, John Michael Montgomery has returned to country music with a stronger sense of his music and himself. Living on his Kentucky farm with wife Crystal, daughter Madison Caroline and new son Walker Carl, Montgomery has settled into a comfortable life, grateful for where he has been and content in where he now is. He might be away from the hype and glitz of the Nashville music community, but that’s just the way he likes it.
“I could spend lots of money and try to sell more records and make myself look bigger and better and all of that stuff,” he asserts. “But, I’m not worried about being the biggest country music star ever, I just want people to accept me for the person I am, and I like my life simple. A lot of people think that you can’t have a simple life and be a country music star at the same time, that you have to make your choice. I am dead set on making everybody out there that thinks that wrong.”