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.