Editor’s Note: CMT Crossroads: Lynyrd Skynyrd & Montgomery Gentry premieres Friday (Dec. 10) at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Let’s say you bumped into your favorite country star at your local bar. You offer to buy them a drink. Would you know what to order?
You would if it was Montgomery Gentry: A round of Jim Beam, please.
The country duo’s high-profile partnership with the company began before Montgomery Gentry even existed. In 1994, Troy Gentry won the Jim Beam National Talent Search as a solo artist, which led to some Nashville showcases, a custom Gibson Les Paul guitar and some much-needed encouragement for a struggling artist.
But it wasn’t until teaming with Eddie Montgomery that the major labels came calling.
The good-timing duo signed a record deal with Sony Music Nashville. When their debut album arrived in 1999, and they knew life on the road was inevitable, Gentry picked up the phone.
“Before we started touring again, we gave them a call, and they said, ‘We’ve been keeping up with you,’” Gentry remembers.
Neither Gentry nor Jeff Christensen, the senior brand manager of Jim Beam, remember who initiated the talks to sponsor the first tour, but Christensen says Montgomery Gentry have worked to “positively promote” the product since the year 2000.
“We didn’t really have to train them on that,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s part of who they are.”
Since then, the deal has emerged as one of the most visible partnerships in contemporary country music.
“It’s amazing the amount of people in the meet-and-greet line that will give them a half-pint,” says Wix Wichmann, a Montgomery Gentry employee who handles the duo’s backstage hospitality on the road. Nobody, including Wichmann, is exactly sure of his title, but he does answer to “The Beam Guy.”
Most fans will first see Wichmann when he’s whipping the crowd into a frenzy just before the show, throwing T-shirts and inflatable bottles into the audience. By that time, he has already handed out the 10 passes provided by the company for private meet-and-greets, giving them to distributors, their family members, important accounts and contest winners. He also scouts local bars for the duo to unwind after a concert and to meet with fans and bar owners.
At every second show or so, Wichmann also meets up with a local representative from the company to restock the bus with bourbon (as well as wine, vodka and tequila). He estimates the 20-person crew goes through a case of bourbon each weekend, giving some of it away and — of course — drinking the rest.
“It’s not an open bar kind of thing,” Gentry says, “but we make sure we’re stocked enough to take care of guests who want to have a drink.”
But perhaps most importantly, the corporation gives the duo a generous lump sum of money twice a year for tour support.
“It’s very helpful, especially in the early years for new acts,” Gentry says. “There’s so much money that’s not there. You’re already in the hole once you start out as an artist, as far as recoups for records and doing free radio shows. It’s hard to make a lot of money in the first year or two as new artists. That’s where Jim Beam was a really big help for us then, getting us off the ground.”
With that money, the duo gradually added a second tour bus, a semi for the gear and a trailer for the merchandise. They also wrapped the crew bus with the bourbon company’s logo. Next year, Wichmann anticipates carrying a tent to accommodate more fans — both new and returning. The upgrade is crucial, because the duo will be headlining more shows, in addition to touring with Trace Adkins.
Christensen says, “Every show is above and beyond what we expect from them, which has really made them our longest-running sponsorship, as far as partners are concerned.”
He recalls bringing 200 key people through a meet-and-greet line in Rockford, Ill., near the company’s worldwide corporate office in a Chicago suburb. “They [Montgomery Gentry] were there for the whole thing and loving every minute. That’s so above and beyond the call, but that’s their personalities and what they love to do, so we’re thrilled with it.”
While both parties discuss the contract annually, making sure everybody is satisfied with the terms and the results, neither side sees an end date in the immediate future. But even if that does happen, fans can probably expect the same freewheeling party atmosphere that has become Montgomery Gentry’s hallmark.
Christensen says, “I think if there ever was a day when we decided that we didn’t want to work together from a contract standpoint, I don’t think that they’d do anything different.”