Right on the appointed minute, Eddie Montgomery calls in from San Diego, where he and partner Troy Gentry are appearing with Toby Keith on his Biggest & Baddest tour. “And that’s what it is, baby,” Montgomery enthuses. “It’s rockin’.”
Lately, Montgomery Gentry have been doing some serious rocking on their own. “Back When I Knew It All,” the title cut from the duo’s new album, went to No. 1 in Billboard, and there are a lot more nuggets where that came from. Their follow-up single is “Roll With Me,” a gentle but spirited reflection on how life should be lived.
Produced by Blake Chancey, Back When I Knew It All finds Montgomery Gentry celebrating the salt-of-the-earth types their music has always targeted. Among the songwriters represented in the collection is Montgomery, himself, who collaborated on two of the 11 cuts. Other contributors include Kevin Fowler, Kim Tribble, Ira Dean, David Lee Murphy, Gary Hannan, Phil O’Donnell, Trent Willmon, Clint Daniels, Tommy Karlas, Tony Martin, Wendell Mobley, Neil Thrasher, Tom Shapiro, Brett James, Angelo Petraglia, Mike Lane, Tony Lane, David Cory Lee and the late Dennis Linde (via his rollicking sendup of snake handlers, “The Big Revival”).
Montgomery says he and Gentry — whom he variously refers to as “T” and “T-Roy” — had their eyes on “Back When I Knew It All” for a long time. “We were just finishing up our last album [Some People Change] when I heard it. I was like, ‘Oh, my God! This song is a smash!’ … It’s really a great song, whether you’re 18 or 60.”
He says the first people who came up to praise the song after he and Gentry incorporated it into their shows were 18- and 19-year-olds who had recently left home and were just discovering how much they didn’t know.
Toby Keith lends his voice to one song on the album, “I Pick My Parties,” a ditty Terri Clark co-wrote. “We heard that song, and T was like, ‘You know, man, it just seems like there ought to be somebody else on it.'” Montgomery explains. “So we said, ‘Hell, we’re going to be on a tour with Toby. Let’s see if Toby will do it.’ And, man, what a perfect match!”
The search for the right songs never abates, Montgomery says. “Even though we just released this album, we’re already hunting for songs for our next one and trying to write some songs if we can.”
The duo’s success, as Montgomery sees it, arises from the artistic identity they forged back when they were still playing the bars in their native Kentucky. “When we got to Nashville, we knew who we were. … We know what we can sing and what we can’t. There’s no sense in trying to sing a song that you know you don’t believe in. I think with a lot of the younger artists coming in, they really don’t know who they are. And that’s why sometimes they have problems.”
For the first seven years of their recording career, Montgomery Gentry reigned as the primo duo at Sony Nashville as part of the Columbia Records roster. Then, in 2006, Sony merged with BMG, a move that put them under the same corporate umbrella as the mighty Brooks & Dunn. But Montgomery says there was no problem being stabled alongside the voracious (and slightly older) award-winners.
“As far as Ronnie [Dunn] and Kix [Brooks] go,” he says, winding up for a joke. “I don’t know if you could even talk to them during an interview. Of course, I’m sure they’ve got them loud ringers on their phones and their hearing aids turned up. I’m sure they could use their walkers to get to the phone.
“Naah, we love Ronnie and Kix. We were on tour with them. We rag them all the time, and they rag us. They’re legends, man. Ronnie has probably got one of the best country voices you’ll ever hear in your life.”
Congenial though they may be toward their competition, Montgomery readily admits that he and Gentry want to get the recognition due them. “That’s why you’ve got to have a good manager, a good label, good booking agents and everything so they can go in and help you get the awards,” Montgomery admits. “That’s the bottom line. Hell, I ain’t gonna lie about it.”
In recent months, Montgomery Gentry switched to new management and publicists. “After so long, you always want to keep that new energy coming,” Montgomery explains. “Nothing against [the former team] or against us. They had some other things they wanted to do, and we had some other things we wanted to do. Me, I’m not satisfied with being where I’m at. I want to go to the moon. I’m that guy, and T is that guy, and when we dream, we dream huge.”
Dreaming figures prominently in Montgomery’s scheme of things. “My dad used to tell us — we’d be sitting in the living room or in a restaurant — and he’d go, ‘Boys, I want you to look around you.’ He said, ‘Everything you see, somebody was a dreamer and they came up with it, and they’re probably millionaires.’ He’d go, ‘Look at that curtain. Somebody came up with that. Look at that ashtray. Somebody came up with that. The tablecloth, the paper cup, that plastic spoon. Keep dreaming.'”
Given Montgomery Gentry’s propensity for singing about folks who have found their niche and are set in their ways, it came as something of a surprise in 2006 when they released “Some People Change.” The song’s message is that major character changes are possible and sometimes positive. One of the people mentioned in the song is addicted to alcohol, the other is a racial bigot, until they see the light.
A particular admirer of the song, Montgomery Gentry discovered, was the African American poet Maya Angelou. She invited the duo to appear on her radio show and later asked them to perform the song during one of her appearances in Nashville. Montgomery was overwhelmed.
“I wish that lady would run for president of the United States because I will vote for her right now,” he says reverentially. “I would become her campaign manager. There’s not been too many times in my life that I’ve not been able to run my mouth or been able to say something. That was the first time, I reckon, ever when I walked up to that lady. I walked up, and I mean I got cold chills. I stood there in awe, and I knew I that I was in [the presence of] greatness. When you go to Heaven, she will be standing beside God.”
As ambitious as he is to win industry awards, Montgomery says the most meaningful honor is when fans tell you that your songs have changed their lives. “When it’s all said and done,” he muses, “what I want to do is go over to the jukebox in some old honky-tonk 20 years from now and go down through there and see a Charlie Daniels song, a Bob Seger song, a Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Merle Haggard song. And if somewhere in there, there’s a Montgomery Gentry song, me and T-Roy can look at each other and say, ‘You know, we did something.'”