"I had a rock tied to my leg in a thousand feet of water."
That's how John Michael Montgomery says he felt during the period between 2000 and 2005 when he was beset by career-derailing afflictions from which he is still recovering.
Then there was his botched performance of the national anthem at a NASCAR race three years ago, a DUI arrest in 2006 and his voluntary enrollment in rehab earlier this year.
If "life's a dance," as his first hit preached, then Montgomery must surely have been hoping that someone would cut in and let him get the hell off the dance floor.
On the plus side, the Kentucky-born balladeer was able to use down time to set up his own label, Stringtown Records, and record an album that's probably his best ever. The CD, Time Flies, debuted at No. 35 in Billboard last month. "Forever," his second single from the album, stands at No. 44 this week.
Byron Gallimore, best known for his work with Tim McGraw, co-produced Time Flies with Montgomery. Although this is the singer's first album in four years, he was still able to attract songs from some of Nashville's top writers, among them Jamey Johnson (who co-wrote three), Kelley Lovelace, Lee Thomas Miller, Luke Bryan, Greg Barnhill, James Slater and Phil O'Donnell.
"I knew [getting good songs] would be a little more of a challenge," Montgomery says, "me being on an independent label. So I allowed myself to take the time and not put a [deadline] on the album. With this one, I took over a year to just listen to songs."
Montgomery's previous album, Letters From Home, was on Warner Bros. Records, the label he retreated to after his original label, Atlantic Records, closed its country music division in 2001.
That album's title song, which focused on the grim life of soldiers who find relief in letters from family and friends, sounded like a sure contender for song of the year, given the currency of the subject matter and Montgomery's warm and comforting delivery. But it wasn't even nominated.
"That's just politics in general," Montgomery says with no sign of resentment. "Warner Bros. was going through a huge transition at that time. We didn't have a lot of people to get behind the artists when I was there. And it does take that, even if you have a great song. You still have to have your lobbyists, people to knock on the door and remind them. ... That's the way it always has been, and that's the way it always will be."
To a degree, Montgomery faces the same lack of corporate clout now that he's recording for his own label. And he knows it. But he thinks the scene is changing.
"I do see doors opening up for independent label artists to make more of a pronouncement of, 'Hey, I'm here and I'm a player.' Radio has opened to independent labels more. That's being seen on the charts and on the awards nominations, too. But it's going to be a long time before we see an independent artist become entertainer of the year, because that takes a force."
Listening to Montgomery recite the physical problems that have sidelined him is like reading a Christmas letter from Job.
"I spent most of my time on crutches from 2000 to 2005. I broke one leg twice -- which was my fault, there's no doubt about that. I unfortunately did have a hip condition -- the same thing that [football and baseball player] Bo Jackson had. It just popped out of nowhere, and I had to have a hip replacement. ...
"Then I had a tonsillectomy and abscessed teeth taken out. A bone in my neck was causing me problems -- pinching nerves -- and I had to have that taken out. So I spent most of my time trying to get beyond these setbacks and still keep my name out there. ... I was still out touring, but nobody knew about it because I didn't have any records out. ...
"I was gaining weight because I couldn't get up to exercise. So when I came back to radio, when I did come out with my first single [from the new album], they were all like, 'Where's John been at?' Let's face it, when an artist like myself has been around for several years -- over a decade -- and they disappear for three or four years and decide to come back with a song, everybody either thinks they're coming back because they're broke and need money or they're bored."
All these setbacks amped up Montgomery's anxiety, a condition he says he's had since he was a teenager. But it was the sudden onset of fame in the early '90s, when he exploded with such hits as "Life's a Dance" and "I Swear," that sharpened his anxiety to a fine edge.
"When I first had hits, I was worried to death about hitting the wrong note or something like that in front of a TV camera," he explains. "[Singing] live, I never even thought about that stuff. It got worse and worse from year to year after I started having the surgeries. I actually had my first throat surgery in '95. I had to take off '96 because I had a hole in my throat that had to heal.
"Anxiety builds upon itself. ... It ends up controlling your life. You're afraid to do anything. Any time you get ready to do something, anxiety says, 'Aw, you're going to screw it up.'"
And screw it up he did when he attempted to sing the national anthem at a NASCAR race the day after a night of performing and partying with his band.
"The very thing I was scared to death of doing, I went up there and did," he says. "It was one of those things where I was eating anxiety medication and pain medications, and I drank the night after I did the concert -- went out and partied with the boys. I didn't need to be getting up the next day and singing. ... I should have had somebody with a big old hook yanking my neck."
Critics were merciless, describing his performance as "off key" and "a massacre."
Montgomery is just as harsh on himself: "I get up there, and I'm a bumbling idiot. That [performance] didn't help me out any, of course. There are radio stations out there that still hold it against me because they didn't know what I was going through. I was just trying to keep my head above water and stay alive."
Time Flies should win back most of the doubters and dismissers. The comic sensibilities Montgomery exhibited in "Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)" are in full bloom again in "With My Shirt On," wherein an aging Don Juan stresses over his bulging midsection, and in the equally zany "Mad Cowboy Disease," a case study of lust gone wild.
There's a wealth of smooth, romantic ballads here, too, notably "Let's Get Lost," "Loving and Letting Go," "Fly On' and the current single, "Forever."
Montgomery says his session in rehabilitation has given him the "tools" he needs to confront his anxieties and the perspective to see that drugs and alcohol are only short-term fixes for the condition.
"I'm only 43," he says confidently. "I'm not done yet."