John Michael Montgomery is living proof you can have scores of fans and a string of No. 1 hits…and still make “that face” when you get up in the morning.
“I have those normal aches and pains nowadays, for sure,” Montgomery, 49, says. “If the weather is between 30 and 50 degrees, I can sure feel it.”
Not that the “I Swear” singer is complaining. After a few years of what seemed like one medical problem after another, he says the worst is behind him and it certainly won’t stop him from performing. While running errands in Kentucky (where he lives with his wife and two teenagers), Montgomery chatted with me about life, music, and his upcoming June 7 appearance at the Liberty Bank Alton Amphitheater, a benefit for the Senior Services Plus “Meals on Wheels” program.
I asked for an update on what could have been a potentially devastating affliction for a musician, his battle with acoustic neuroma (a benign tumor that affects hearing and balance). He says after successful surgery in 2005, the problem seems to be a thing of the past.
“One unfortunate side effect is that you do lose most of your hearing, so I do have hearing issues out of that side now,” he told me. “I have had some health problems, but that one was definitely a big surprise.
“But, hey, I’ve still got one good ear!”
That laid back, “glass half-full” outlook on life has played a large part in Montgomery’s career, as his down-to-earth demeanor and refusal to take himself too seriously won over millions of fans throughout the peak of his success. In fact, one of the songs he wrote in the early days, “A Few Cents Short,” was inspired by his excitement at finding loose change in the floorboards.
“My brother and I were playing nightclubs and riding around in my little Ford Escort that had 170,000 miles on it and burned about a quart of oil an hour,” he said. “We were heading to a gig and I was on empty and didn’t have a dollar to my name. We dug through the car and found $3 in spare change.
“I put $2 in the tank and then we went to McDonald’s and got two burgers for a dollar. I thought I had it made, and that’s what that song is about.”
Other songs penned by Montgomery have a bit of a darker tone, such as “I Miss You a Little,” an ode to the father who was such a strong influence and died from cancer at the age of 53.
“Because of my dad’s dreams, we lived like gypsies, but I had a great childhood,” Montgomery said with a small sigh of nostalgia in his voice. “We had two good parents who always let us know they loved us and took care of us. We weren?t raised to be liars and thieves; I had great parents.”
That nomadic lifestyle instilled a love of music and “honky tonkin” early on for Montgomery. The family formed a band when “Johnny” and his older brother Eddie (currently one-half of the country duo Montgomery Gentry) were barely school age.
“My mom played drums and sang, and my dad sung and played guitar,” Montgomery said. “They would drag me and Eddie around to VFW halls and other places where you weren’t supposed to be as kids. We loved it.”
After high school, the brothers formed their own band, John Michael Montgomery and Young Country, and paid their dues around Kentucky.
“I got my record deal when I was 25, and I had been playing honky tonks since I was 18, so I put in my years, for sure,” he said.
Strangely enough, in spite of the hard work, success caught Montgomery by surprise.
“The dream was always there in the back of my mind, but I thought, ‘Why would it happen to me? I’m just Johnny Montgomery from Nicholasville, Ky.,'” he said. “I wanted to give myself the opportunity, so I gave myself until the age of 30 and then I would get ‘a real job.’ But until then I thought I would just enjoy this as long as I can.”
As it worked out, he didn’t have to wait until he turned 30. His debut album, “Life’s a Dance,” went triple-platinum, and scored his first No. 1 hit, “I Love the Way You Love Me,” in 1992. From there, “Little Johnny’s” career took off, and hit after hit followed. “I Swear.” “I Can Love You Like That.” “How Was I to Know.” “The Little Girl.” And, of course, the song everyone tries to sing (and ends up out of breath), “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident).”
“I’d be in trouble if I didn’t do that song in concert,” he says, laughing. “If there is one area where I have been fortunate, it has been cutting songs that I know I will enjoy singing 25 years down the road. When I do a show, you can just tell that is the song people are waiting to hear.”
As his career progressed, Montgomery also began recording some of his own compositions.
“Early on, the record company would have writers supply songs, and Nashville has so many great writers that I wondered if my stuff would be good enough,” he said. “As I got more secure, I started feeling more confident throwing my own songs on an album.”
Secure? The very first single written by Montgomery, “I Miss You a Little,” went to No. 6!
In all, he has sold more than 18 million records, recorded 15 No. 1 hits, and earned four Academy of Country Music awards along with three Grammy nominations, placing him among the most successful country acts in history. Not that you’d know it from his demeanor. Focused more on family life than a jet-set lifestyle, Montgomery and his brother live about 30 minutes apart and get together whenever busy touring schedules allow.
“In the winter, it is a little easier to meet up and have dinner or something,” he said.
John Michael Montgomery will perform June 7 at the Liberty Bank Alton Amphitheater as part of the Feed the Need Concert benefitting Senior Services’ Meals on Wheels program, providing hot meals to more than 700 homebound seniors throughout Madison and St. Clair counties. Tickets are $30 per person.
“We only have one fund-raiser a year,” Senior Services Plus Executive Director John Becker said. “We are lucky to have John Michael Montgomery; he is so generous and down to earth.”
Opening for Montgomery will be The Harman Family Bluegrass Band, led by local resident Mike Harman, a former member of Alison Krauss and Union Station.
“The Harmans are a great local favorite,” Becker said. “We have two fantastic acts performing for only $30, and you will be helping those in need.”
For more information or to purchase tickets, call (800) 233-4904.
(And before we hung up, Montgomery promised me he would be singing “Sold” at the Alton concert.)