Just a good ol' boy from Danville, Kentucky, singer John Michael Montgomery started playing country music with his parents' honky-tonk band. He kept at it, first in a band with his brother Eddie (who would go on to fame with the duo Montgomery Gentry) and then as a solo artist, releasing his chart-topping debut, Life's a Dance, in 1992 and winning countless awards. While the past several years haven't been easy, Montgomery returned last year with Time Flies, the first album on his label Stringtown. Along with Josh Turner and Blake Shelton, he co-headlines this weekend's WGAR Country Jam.
Tell me about when you started playing music.
My mom and dad played music in a band on the weekends, so when I was a kid, they would get me onstage and let me sing a song or two. I could sing about half of one as far as I can remember. For the most part, they just drug us kids along because we didn't have any babysitters. My brother Eddie and me got to be teenagers and were interested in playing onstage and singing. Once we got out of high school, we started our own band, Early Tymz. We landed a five-nights-a-week house gig here in Lexington and played there for about five years. Of course, I got my record deal in about my fourth year there in 1990 or something like that. Then Life's a Dance came out in 1992, and it just kept ballooning.
Was there a chance that you and Eddie could have stuck together?
We were always playing onstage together. Back in the mid-'80s, I had this guy from Nashville who wanted to pitch me as a solo artist back when I was 18 years old. I went by John Michael Montgomery and had won a state championship Ace Hardware award and got a lot of radio and print out of that. We started calling the band John Michael Montgomery and Young Country. When I got my record deal, Eddie went on the road with me.
Did everything change after Life's a Dance?
I had never actually traveled before that and hadn't even been out of the state. I had never been on an airplane. They flew me out to Colorado for the "Life's a Dance" video. It went up the charts, and I was touring and making some money. I always toured and never got above my raisin'. I always thought this could be the last album; you never know. Once the song hit and we came out with "I Love the Way You Love Me," that first year started to get busy. And then when "Beer and Bones" came out, the floodgates opened. I was pretty much overwhelmed by what was happening. I mean, here's a laid-back guy who spends most of his time golfing or out fishing and doing this or that. I'm a somewhat private kind of guy, and everyone is nosing into my life and wanting a piece of my life. It's like interviews all day from 7 in the morning. I was like, "Whoah." That took a big adjustment. You just don't think about that stuff when you get a record deal and a hit. You think you're going to go out and sing your songs. I went from living in a trailer park to being a No. 1 artist on the pop and country charts, with people following me around everywhere I go. I was trying to make everybody happy. I didn't do very well at scheduling. I ended up having to have vocal surgery in 1996. I wore myself out, and from that time on, I was always scared. I never had anything like that happen to me before. I've cautiously carried my career on.
What's it been like leaving the major labels behind?
It's a double-edged sword. They have tons of resources. You know your product will be heard and seen, but as a creative person, you always have someone telling you what you need to do. Then you get thrust into the business side. You cut albums, and you can hear the clock ticking. I never really looked at playing music as a job until I started my own record label. Then I realized I had a job. I have people depending on me to be there and do things. You can't call in sick. If I get sick, I have to show up, or I don't get paid. Let's face it: I'm a musician. I'm a singer; I'm a honky-tonker; I'm a nightclubber. I have to learn as I go. I've made some good choices and bad choices. After 18 years, I've survived it.
Is that what your latest single, "All in a Day," is about?
Yeah, it's the cornerstone of the album. In 2004, after Warner Bros. and I separated, there weren't other labels that wanted to pick me up because I had all those health issues from throat surgeries to hip replacements. I had seven surgeries in five years. In addition to having to take medications, I also had tremendous anxiety and panic attacks over stuff. When you go through tough times, your body falls apart on you. I had four years of trying to recuperate from the rehabbing of my legs and hips to the rehabbing of my body. I couldn't get a major label to touch me with a 10-foot pole. I always wanted to do my own label, and as I got to trying to put together the album, I got to realizing it wasn't that long ago that this had all started. It was 2007 when I was working on this thing. I thought it was just 1992. I had this other song "Time Flies," and that's kinda how things have been. I'm 44 now. You start seeing all that stuff, and your kids are almost teenagers, and your career is a decade and a half old. This song summed it up for what I think a lot of people have come to realize. From the time you're born to the time you die, it seems like it goes by in a day.
What's your future look like?
I'm obviously going to continue touring as long as I can. I'll continue making music, whether it's my own music or producing another artist or writing. I've been playing ever since my mom and dad had a band. I haven't known anything else other than part-time jobs I had during the day when I was only making $150 a week playing music. I had to wait tables in brew houses and whatever I could do that was a day gig so I could play my music at night. So whatever I have to do to continue playing music and enjoy it, I'll do.