My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘John Michael Montgomery’

John Michael Montgomery was under pressure when he and Scott Hendricks entered the studio to record his third album in 1994. The monster success of “I Swear” was so impactful he not only won ACM and CMA honors, but he also performed the song at the Grammy Awards. It pushed sales of Kickin’ It Up past 4 million units and cemented his place in country love song history.

He was also coming off of two consecutive #1s when Atlantic released “I Can Love You Like That” to country radio in February 1995. The romantic ballad, a companion piece of sorts to “I Swear,” hit #1 and was also covered by the R&B group All-4-One. It’s one of my favorite contemporary country songs of the 1990s.

Montgomery switched gears completely in May, with the release of the breakneck-paced “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident).” The song tells the story of a guy who attends an auction in Grundy County, Tennessee. While there he lays eyes on a woman named Heather, who consumes his thoughts, and becomes his big prize.

“Sold” is an excellent record with superb instrumentation that allowed Montgomery to diversify and showcase a playful charm he wasn’t able to display on his signature ballads. The audiences loved the song so much it also hit #1 and was named Billboard’s biggest country single of the year, a feat that wasn’t even bestowed upon “I Swear.”

The album’s first two singles were such memorable hits, it left little room for “No Man’s Land” to make a significant impact. The mid-tempo ballad, about a woman adjusting to a life ‘nothin’ like she had planned,’ is a competent yet unremarkable story song in the vein of Toby Keith’s superior “Upstairs Downtown.” It performed well at radio, hitting #3, but it was forgotten as soon as it fell from the charts.

“Cowboy Love,” which hit #4, is an attempt at rekindling the charm of “Be My Baby Tonight,” and while it was moderately successful at the time, it has aged horrendously. Both songs unfortunately represent the very worst of 1990s country, a time when honky-tonk had been brought to the dance floor by people in cutoff t-shirts with denim for days. The whole aesthetic is a parody of the genre’s best traditions.

The quality of the singles only got worse with “Long As I Live,” which is a feeble attempt at adding another romantic ballad to his repertoire. The ballad is embarrassingly awful, with a cliché Hallmark lyric. It hit #4, which is a testament to Montgomery’s power with country radio at the time.

The most notable album track, “Holdin’ Onto Something,” was recorded by Jeff Carson the same year and released as a single in 1996, where it peaked at #6. Carson’s record holds significant nostalgic value for me, which clouds my judgement on its quality. Montgomery does well with the song, but Hendricks fails him with a very generic arrangement. Listening now, I can easily hear Tim McGraw singing this song during this time period, possibly bringing it to #1.

“High School Heart” is typical of contemporary ballads from the time period. It’s cheesy, but the track does still have its merits. It tells the story of a man reminiscing on his romantic past, specifically his high school days, and all that’s changed in the years since then. The twist in the chorus is the girl he loved back then is his wife today, still loving him with a high school heart. Montgomery sells the story competently, but I would very much like to hear it with a far more dynamic vocalist and a more memorable arrangement.

“Just Like A Rodeo” is so bad, it’s hard to believe it even exists, especially during this time period, when the gatekeepers knew better. In the lyric, a man is in throws of sexual intercourse comparing riding his girl to a cowboy riding a bull. It’s even more horrid than “She Thinks My Tractors Sexy” but has only been matched or eclipsed by the bro-country era, where honestly, it would probably fit right in.

“Heaven Sent Me You” has the arrangement, filled with steel, and the committed vocal from Montgomery to be a sure-fire hit. It was likely buried because the lyric is second-rate, especially as his romantic ballads are concerned.

“It’s What I Am” never really saw the light of day, but it is a watershed moment for what was to come within the next ten to twelve years. The track has Montgomery wearing his southern pride on his sleeve, singing:

I got my first guitar when I was just a boy

I was playing the blues instead of playing with toys

Listening to the Opry and dreaming of the neon lights

So it was late to bed and early to rise

I worked the field all day and the crowd all night

My finger on the trigger and Nashville in my sights

I’m the real thing and I sing songs about real life

 

And I never heard a fiddle called a violin

Never really worried if I fit in

Country ain’t what I sing it’s what I am

This hat ain’t something I wear for style

These boots have been around a while

Country ain’t what I sing it’s what I am

 

I learned to drive on a dirt road

Cruised the strip on rock and roll

And drove around on “Miles and Miles of Texas”

And as I grew Daddy showed me now

To earn a living by the sweat of my brow

But he never made me follow in his steps

He said work hard and let the good Lord do the rest

Montgomery and Hendricks needn’t worry, as this album matched Kickin’ It Up and was also certified quadruple platinum. If I had to guess, it was “Sold” and not “I Can Love You Like That” that contributed more to the sales. The album itself is of very varying quality, with the two songs I just mentioned being the only real standouts.

Grade: B-

Week ending 2/2/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1959: Billy Bayou — Jim Reeves (RCA Victor)

1969: Daddy Sang Bass — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1979: Why Have You Left The One You Left Me For — Crystal Gayle (United Artists)

1989: What I’d Say — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1999: Stand Beside Me — Jo Dee Messina (Curb)

2009: Country Boy — Alan Jackson (Arista Nashville)

2019: Tequila — Dan + Shay (Warner Bros. Nashville)

2019 (Airplay): Girl Like You — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

Spotlight Artist: John Michael Montgomery

Thank you for sticking with us these past few months, as we’ve done our best to bring you fresh content each week. The content will be more regular this month since our Spotlight Artist series is back.

Although it seems we’ve covered just about every major country singer on the planet, at least as it relates to country music from 1980-present, there’s always someone who has escaped our clutches, flying just under the radar. This month it’s John Michael Montgomery, the Kentuckian who made his mark during the boom years with romantic ballads that remain wedding staples more than 25 years since they first climbed the charts.

Montgomery was born, January 20, 1965, in Danville, Kentucky to musician parents. His father was a regional country singer and his mother played drums in his band. He learned to play guitar from his dad, who had him performing on stage by age 5. By the time he was in his teens, Montgomery was performing regularly in the local area, forming a band with his dad and brother while still in high school.

After graduation, he was a regular on the local honky-tonk circuit, where he was discovered. Montgomery signed his record deal with Atlantic Records in 1991 and released his debut album Life’s A Dance in October 1992. His songs were a commercial success out of the gate, with the title track peaking at #4 and “I Love The Way You Love Me” hitting #1.

The success of the ac-leaning romantic ballad, which was co-written by Victoria Shaw and Chuck Cannon, became the blueprint for his career. When it was time to pick a lead single for his sophomore album in late 1993, Atlantic went with “I Swear,” which became a wedding staple upon release. The song would go on to top the country charts for four consecutive weeks in early 1994. Montgomery took home Single of the Year honors from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, while the ACM awarded the song’s writers, Gary Baker and Frank J. Meyers, their Song of the Year trophy.

The success of “I Swear” cannot be overstated. In 1995, Pop/R&B group All-4-One covered the song, where it topped the Billboard Hot 100 and hit #1 in nine other countries worldwide. As for Montgomery, the song’s parent album, Kickin’ It Up, hit #1 and sold 4 million copies.

Although he stalled at #4 with the excellent follow-up single “Rope The Moon,” Montgomery didn’t lose any momentum in the wake of “I Swear.” Four consecutive #1s followed “Rope The Moon” including another romantic ballad, “I Can Love You Like That,” which also went mainstream with a cover version by All-4-One. His other big hit during this period was the charming “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident),” a decidedly uptempo love song that still endears today. His eponymous third album, which featured those hits, also went multi-platinum.

Montgomery’s career had shifted by 1996 when he went decidedly more country on his fourth album, What I Do The Best. Lead single “Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Us” stalled at #15, breaking his winning streak. The album is anchored by the #2 hits “Friends” and “How Was I To Know” and the #6 “I Miss You A Little.”

By the late 1990s, Montgomery’s albums were no longer essential blockbusters, but he remained a presence on radio, despite the pop invasion by Faith Hill, Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes and Dixie Chicks. A Greatest Hits album would bring the top 5 ballad “Angel In My Eyes” and he would enjoy more radio success with “Cover You in Kisses,” “Hold On To Me” and “Home To You.”

By 2000 his brother Eddie was enjoying success with Montgomery Gentry, scoring big radio hits with “Hillbilly Shoes,” “Lonely and Gone,” and “She Couldn’t Change Me.” Brooks & Dunn were coming off of the commercial failure Tight Rope, which allowed the duo to send shockwaves through the industry when the CMA crowned them Duo of the Year, breaking Brooks & Dunn’s eight-year winning streak.

Montgomery was still on the charts himself in 2000, enjoying his seventh and final #1 to date, “The Little Girl,” Harley Allen’s controversial and polarizing tale of a child who witnesses the murder-suicide of her parents. He would have one final #2, the military-themed “Letters From Home” in 2004. Montgomery released his most recent album, Time Flies, in 2008.

Please enjoy our coverage throughout the month.

BREAKING: Harold Bradley passes at 93

Guitarist Harold Bradley of Owen Bradley’s Studio, here in the studio May 10, 1961, is one of six local musicians taking part in a demonstration of Nashville’s music as a part of the upcoming Nashville Arts Festival. Joe Rudis / The Tennessean

Bradley’s daughters announced on Facebook this morning their father passed peacefully in his sleep. Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006, Bradley was a key member of Nashville’s “A-Team” of studio session musicians. As a guitarist, he played on legendary records from “Stand By Your Man” to “Crazy” and “Battle of New Orleans.” He was the younger brother of country music legend Owen Bradley, the famed record producer, who died twenty years ago.

Stephen L. Betts of Rolling Stone magazine wrote this about Bradley’s life and career:

Born in Nashville in 1926, Harold Ray Bradley was the younger brother of fellow Hall of Fame member Owen Bradley, who produced records by Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and many others. Although he first played banjo, the younger Bradley was given a six-dollar guitar purchased by his father in a junk store. By high school he was playing well enough to earn a spot in Ernest Tubb’s band the Texas Troubadours and also played in his brother’s popular dance band. Bradley served in the Navy and after his return began playing in the Grand Ole Opry house band, while also doing session work playing lead and rhythm guitar as well as bass. It was on the latter instrument that he popularized the “tic-tac” method, a muted style of playing that involved doubling a melody on six-string bass. Bradley’s first session took place in Chicago, playing on Pee Wee King’s “Tennessee Central No. 9” in 1946.

In the early Fifties, Owen and Harold opened several recording studios in Nashville, the most famous being the Quonset Hut on 16th Avenue South, part of the city’s then-burgeoning Music Row. Bradley would be among the most recorded musicians working in the style that would be known as “countrypolitan” or the “Nashville sound,” a blend of smooth pop and traditional country music. Among the more notable songs that include his work are the holiday classic, “Jingle Bell Rock,” which opens with his distinctive guitar riff and “The Battle of New Orleans,” which kicks off with a memorable banjo lick. Bradley also recorded a trio of instrumental LPs for Columbia Records in the early Sixties.

In 1978, Bradley was one of the organizers of a concert at the White House, given by Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty and Tom T. Hall to honor the Country Music Association. In 1999, he co-produced Mandy Barnett’s second LP, I’ve Got a Right to Cry, which featured four tracks produced by Owen Bradley just prior to his death in January 1998.

Bradley served as president of Nashville’s American Federation of Musicians from 1991 to 2008 and was the AFM’s International Vice President from 1999 to 2010. The first president of Nashville’s chapter of the Recording Academy, he was honored with a special Grammy Trustees Award in 2010.

Click here to read what Barnett had to say about Bradley’s passing.

Ray Stevens had this to say, as well.

In Memoriam: Country legends we’ve lost already in 2019

As our friend Razor X pointed out to me, January has been a cruel month for fans of historical country music. Before we flip the page into February, I wanted to note the legends who are, sadly, no longer amongst us. I’ve chosen to eulogize them in descending order.

Maxine Brown Russell (1931-2019)

Russell passed away January 21 at age 87 following complications from heart and kidney disease. Along with her siblings Bonnie Brown Ring and Jim Ed Brown, she was a member of the trio The Browns, who were active from 1954-1968. The trio scored their biggest hit “The Three Bells” 60 years ago, spending 10 consecutive weeks at #1 from August 7-November 2, 1959. The trio was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015. Jim Ed, who went on to have a successful solo career with hits such as “Pop a Top” and “I Don’t Want to Have To Marry You” with Helen Cornelius, died in 2015 following a battle with lung cancer. The disease claimed their sister Bonnie in 2016.

Reggie Young (1936-2019)

Young passed away January 17 from heart failure at age 82. A guitarist, Young’s signature sound graced hundreds of rock, pop, and country records. He most famously worked with Elvis Presley and Waylon Jennings.

Carol Channing (1921-2019)

Perhaps the most recognizable name in this group, Channing was a Broadway legend who made her mark playing Dolly Gallagher Levi in the musical Hello Dolly, which premiered in 1964. While not known for impacting country music in any significant way, she had a duet with Webb Pierce in 1976, entitled “Got You On My Mind.” Channing passed on January 15 of natural causes at age 97.

Bonnie Guitar (1923-2019)

Guitar, a country singer, guitarist, and business-woman, died January 12 at age 95. Please read our friend Paul W. Dennis’ Country Heritage Redux piece on her to learn more about her remarkable career. One of her biggest hits was “Dark Moon,” which was a #14 country single and peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart:

Week ending 1/26/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1959: Billy Bayou — Jim Reeves (RCA Victor)

1969: Daddy Sang Bass — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1979: Why Have You Left The One You Left Me For — Crystal Gayle (United Artists)

1989: Deeper Than The Holler — Randy Travis (Warner Bros)

1999: Wrong Again — Martina McBride (RCA Nashville)

2009: Start A Band — Brad Paisley feat. Keith Urban (Arista Nashville)

2019: Speechless — Dan + Shay (Warner Nashville)

2019 (Airplay): Sixteen — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

Classic Rewind: Mike Reid — ‘Walk On Faith’

Classic Rewind: Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Gwen Sebastian — ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’

The trio takes on the Dixie Chicks classic, which turns 20 this year:

Week ending 1/19/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1959: Billy Bayou — Jim Reeves (RCA Victor)

1969: Daddy Sang Bass — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1979: Baby I’m Burnin’ — Dolly Parton (RCA Records)

1989: She’s Crazy For Leaving — Rodney Crowell (Columbia)

1999: Right On The Money — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2009: Already Gone — Sugarland (Mercury Nashville)

2019: Speechless — Dan + Shay (Warner Nashville)

2019: Good Girl — Dustin Lynch (Broken Bow)

 

Classic Rewind: Mel Street — ‘Borrowed Angel’

Classic Rewind: Jon Pardi — ‘Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’

Jon Pardi covers a George Strait classic:

Classic Rewind: Pistol Annies — ‘Best Years of My Life’

Classic Rewind: Carter Family — ‘In The Pines’

Week ending 1/12/19: #1 singles this week in country music history

1958: City Lights — Ray Price (Columbia)

1969: Daddy Sang Bass — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1979: Lady Lay Down — John Conlee (ABC)

1989: Change of Heart — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1999: You’re Easy On The Eyes — Terri Clark (Mercury)

2009: Here — Rascal Flatts (Lyric Street)

2019: Speechless — Dan + Shay (Warner Nashville)

2019 (Airplay): Speechless — Dan + Shay (Warner Nashville)

Classic Rewind: Shania Twain — ‘Still Under The Weather’

Rare performance of a song from her debut album:

Album Review: Bill Anderson — ‘Anderson’

Bill Anderson released his 72nd album last September. It wasn’t until last weekend when he hosted and performed on a new episode of Country’s Family Reunion on RFD-TV that I was finally inspired to review it.

The song he performed on the show was the album’s lead single, the fantastic “Everybody Wants To Be Twenty-One,” which he co-wrote with Jamey Johnson, who joins him on it. The somber ballad is about the passage of time, with Anderson and Johnson singing:

The young wish they were old and

The old wish they were young

Everybody wants to be twenty-one

“Everybody Wants To Be Twenty-One” begs to be covered by either George Strait or Kenny Chesney, who a few years ago would’ve had a major hit with it. He continues in a reflective mood on “Old Things New,” in which he sings about playing records from the 1950s, calling old friends, and taking photos of his departed wife out of the drawer to put back on display. He’s taking old things and making them new and taking stock of his life as it is in the present moment.

He continues the theme on “Thankful,” a brilliant ballad in which he lists everything that matters to him including his more than fifty years in country music where the universe has allowed him the opportunity to live in Nashville, where he’s been able to write songs that have morphed into standards and become a legend of the Grand Ole Opry. But, in his eyes, those things pale in comparison to the folks he’s been able to entertain all these years:

For without you life wouldn’t mean a doggone thing

And I’d just be a singer with no song to sing

A wounded bird grounded with a broken wing

I’m thankful that none of that is true

cause most of all I’m thankful for you

“Thankful,” which is tastefully presented with beautiful ribbons of steel guitar throughout, is one of three cuts Anderson wrote solo. “Dixie Everywhere I Go” is an intimate conversation between a bartender and a customer, a man who moved to Buffalo from the South. The customer explains to the barkeep how he takes his southern upbringing, Dixie as he refers to it, wherever he travels. Turns out the barkeep also has a Dixie, a woman he loves. The lyric is very good and engaging, although the multiple meanings of the word Dixie are a bit cutesy for my taste.

The third of Anderson’s solo cuts is “Something To Believe In,” a list song about needing the tried-and-true in life. The Harmonica-laced “Dead To You” finds Anderson single, after his woman severed ties, making it clear she never wants anything to do with him again. He clearly wants to win her back, but clearly doesn’t know what to do. He co-wrote the ballad with John Paul White, who has made quite the career for himself in the Americana realm since The Civil Wars disbanded a number of years ago.

The harmonica makes another appearance, this time on “Watchin’ It Rain,” a mournful ballad about a man devastated in the wake of his woman walking out on him. The track is depressing and slow, with a moody bluesy undertone that fits nicely with the lyrics.

He reverses the sad tone on “That’s What Made Me Love You,” a traditional country ballad led by twin fiddles, steel guitar, and a lyric in which he lists all the things that endears him to his woman. Anderson’s vocal didn’t have enough twang for me, but other than that, this is one of the many standout tracks on the album.

“Practice Leaving Town” puts such a clever spin on the traditional breakup song, it’s amazing it hasn’t already been written before. Anderson sings of man in a relationship that’s clearly on the rocks. Neither party has the courage to end things for good, but he knows it’s coming so he fires up his “gettin’ out of dodge pickup” and drives “about fifty miles” before turning around. The relationship may or may not ever officially end, but if it does, he’ll know exactly what he’ll do and where he’ll go.

The album’s brilliance continues on “The Only Bible,” in which Anderson, in a co-write with Tim Rushlow, introduces us to Norman, a man Anderson actually went to college within Athens, Georgia. As he puts it, Norman wouldn’t attend church or go to a bible study because he felt they were full of hypocrites and fools who would talk the talk but wouldn’t walk the walk. Norman wanted people to lead by example every day since “we may be the only Bible someone ever reads.”

The only time the album deviates from its charted course is on “Waffle House Christmas,” which Anderson co-wrote with Erin Enderlin and Alex Kline. The song is a charming and humorous tale about a family displaced on Christmas morning after the tree caught on fire and the turkey burned to a crisp. They check into a motel and venture to the local Waffle House to salvage what’s left of the day. A video, which prominently featured Enderlin and Tanya Tucker, was popular this past holiday season.

“Waffle House Christmas” is an excellent addition to the album and a welcomed change of pace. Anderson typically leans heavy and serious and while it may have benefited from some lighter tunes, it’s a wonderful album of quality country music. I don’t think the majority of the songs lend themselves to repeated listenings for me, many are the “if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it” type of songs, but there isn’t a clunker in the bunch.

In the press materials for the album, Anderson said by album 72, many would assume he’d just mail it in, which he says isn’t the case. He certainly didn’t mail it in at all. The only crime here is that the album has flown so low under the radar it’s all but been overlooked. I highly recommend checking it out for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Michael Ray, Carly Pearce, and Ricky Skaggs — ‘When You Say Nothing At All’

Two stars from the newest generation, who also happened to just get engaged, are joined by Skaggs on a Keith Whitley classic:

Classic Rewind: Alison Krauss — ‘A Little Past Little Rock’

Alison covers the Lee Ann Womack’s classic at the ASCAP Country Awards, 11/12/18:

In Memoriam: Steve Ripley dies at 69

Ripley was the lead singer of The Tractors. The group is best known for their iconic debut single “Baby Likes To Rock It,” which hit #11 in 1994:

A year later The Tractors released their Christmas album, which featured a holiday-themed take on the song entitled “Santa Claus is Comin’ (In A Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train):”

The album also featured “The Santa Claus Boogie,” written solely by Ripley:

The Tractors are perhaps also known for their spirited cover of the Rolling Stones classic “The Last Time.” which served as the lead single from Stone Country: Country Artists Perform the Songs of the Rolling Stones:

Classic Rewind: Ricky Skaggs and friends — ‘Black Eyed Suzie, Highway 40 Blues, Country Boy’

From the 52nd CMA Awards last November. In honor of his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Keith Urban is filling in for Vince Gill, who was under the weather and had to cancel at the last minute: