After 11 years as a recording artist, John Michael Montgomery has finally presented his fans a Christmas album. Mr. Snowman veers toward classic carols, but it also boasts three newer pieces, including a World War II fable co-written by Harley Allen (the composer of Montgomery’s 2000 hit, “The Little Girl”) and Montgomery’s own self-penned tribute to his father.
Perhaps the oddest fact about the album is that it was recorded during the Christmas season — last December — instead of in the summer when most such projects are put together. Even the snow scene on the album cover is authentic.
“I’d been wanting to do a Christmas album for a while,” Montgomery tells CMT.com, “but the timing just wasn’t right.” Originally signed to Atlantic Records, the Kentucky-born artist was transferred to Warner Bros., his current label, when Atlantic closed in April 2001.
“Once I came over to Warner Bros.,” he continues, “I recorded an album in the spring [of 2002], an album called Pictures. That left my wintertime open. I usually record [my regular albums] in the wintertime. So I told them, ’Hey, I’ve been wanting to do a Christmas album. What do you think about it?’ And they said, ’Sounds good. When do you want to do it?’ I said, ’This Christmas.’ They told me they weren’t going to be able to get it out until next Christmas. I said, ’That’s fine. It gives me plenty of time to work on it.’
“We recorded it down here [in Nashville] during December. It was cold, and it snowed. All the players and musicians were like, ’Wow! I don’t know how long it’s been since we did a Christmas album at Christmas.'” Montgomery decided to produce the album himself (with assistance from John Kunz). “It was very fun for me to produce it as a little pet project,” he says. “I had co-produced some albums, but this was the first time I actually got to be the main guy making all the calls.”
For holiday traditionalists, Montgomery picked such durables as “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the vocally daunting “O Holy Night.” Barry Coburn, his old boss at Atlantic, now pitching songs for his music publishing company, suggested to Montgomery that he might want to record “December 1943,” Harley Allen and John Wiggins’ tale of battling Allied and German soldiers who find one night of peace together. “I knew immediately I wanted that song to be on there,” Montgomery recalls. “It was very compelling. [Harley Allen’s] probably my favorite storytelling songwriter in Nashville.”
Montgomery wrote “A Daddy’s Prayer” specifically for Mr. Snowman. “I love writing,” he says. “I just don’t spend a lot of time doing it. If I was down here in Nashville — if I lived here instead of Nicholasville, Ky., where I’m actually from — I’d probably write a lot more. I [decided I was] going to make myself sit down and, as soon as I came up with an idea, I was going to start and finish this song. Sure enough, it was on my dad’s birthday. He passed away in ’94 on Dec. 6. I was getting ready to go into the studio to start cutting tracks for the Christmas album. I still hadn’t penned anything yet.
“Then, all of a sudden, I started thinking about my dad and it being his birthday. And I started thinking about my kids and what my dad was thinking about me when I was their age. Of course, there was the war and all that stuff. They had a lot of media stuff on the military and being away from home on Christmas and the holidays and all of the terrorist stuff going on. I thought, ’You know what? What’s it going to be like for my kids when they’re my age? Hopefully, they won’t have to deal with the problems we have right now. We can fix this for them. I started writing the song, and it kind of started coming out like a prayer. … It was a prayer to be there for my kids and to try to make this world better, to try to get rid of the hate.”
Taking advantage of a fortuitous snowfall, photographer Lee P. Thomas shot the cover art for Mr. Snowman in the backyard of Montgomery’s house on his 60-acre spread in Kentucky’s horse farm country.
This year, Warner Bros. decided to release a DVD of Montgomery’s music videos, which led to the re-discovery of the one he had done for “The Little Girl” but which was never released. It was, in fact, the last video Montgomery has done. “Once the video was finished,” the singer says, “Barry [Coburn] and I felt like we just didn’t need to put it out. There was something that just didn’t feel right about it. So we put it away. . . . And then Atlantic Records closed its doors down here. As far as I knew, all that stuff was gone. I didn’t think we’d see or hear from that video ever again.” However, Warner Bros. found “the lost video” and included it on the DVD, The Very Best of John Michael Montgomery: The Videos. The label released the package in October.
It wasn’t only the closing of Atlantic Records that slowed down Montgomery’s career. On Dec. 29, 2000 — he is precise about the date — he broke his leg. It required two operations to repair and left him on crutches for eight months. “It was an ugly mess and definitely a drawback,” he says. “I’m a person that gets up and I go. I do things. You don’t realize how much a freedom that is until it’s taken away from you. … I couldn’t really go out and do it like I wanted to, but I still went out and toured. Basically, I had to limp off the bus and limp onto the stage. I really shouldn’t have toured at all. But I just couldn’t sit at home. … I’d rather walk out on crutches and sing a few songs than just sit at home and not do anything.”
Montgomery is now recording an album with producer Byron Gallimore, the studio genie behind Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Jo Dee Messina, Jessica Andrews and others. He praises Gallimore, both for his ability to pick songs and to create a relaxed studio atmosphere. “You go in there,” he observes, “and it’s not this one big ball of stress that sometimes producers can make it out to be. … It’s been no doubt the most pleasant experience of any album I’ve made so far.” He thinks the new album, for which he has already cut seven songs, will be called Good Ground.
So, with a Christmas album and a DVD already on the shelves and a new album pending, will Montgomery be touring this coming summer? “I tour every summer,” he says emphatically. “If I ain’t got a big tour going, I’ll have a small one going somewhere. It might be in your backyard. But I’m going to be showing up somewhere singing something.”