Over the past three-plus decades, Eddie Montgomery has used numerous abbreviated nicknames to reference his longstanding musical partner.
Sometimes, it’s T-Roy. In other instances, he simply says “T.” The artist in question, needless to say, is Lexington native Troy Gentry, the other half of the namesake duo that turned the two singers into a major country music hitmaking force as the 1990s drew to a close.
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As a team, Montgomery Gentry charted close to two dozen singles, several of which — including the homegrown anthem “My Town” — came to define their music, their background and their artistic sentiment. They took home awards from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music almost out of the starting gate and maintained a powerful Kentucky sensibility within their music even as success took the duo on tours around the world and Gentry, eventually, to a new home in Nashville.
All of that changed on Sept. 8 of last year. With their eighth studio album “Here’s to You” completed only two days earlier, Montgomery Gentry found themselves in Medford, New Jersey for an evening concert. Gentry died in a helicopter crash that afternoon, while on a sightseeing trip.
“Sept. 8, that was a ricochet, man,” Montgomery said, last week. Nearly five months after the tragedy, the Danville native is now back onstage and back in public view to promote what now stands as the final recording he and Gentry made together. The first, and perhaps toughest, decision to be made dealt with the band name – the brand name, really. With his partner gone, was the Montgomery Gentry name to be retired? As it turns out, that question was settled long before last summer.
“At first, I didn’t know whether to keep singing or if we should even put out the CD,” Montgomery said. “We had finished the CD two days before the accident. So it became, like, ‘Should we put this out?’ But we had had a talk, actually, about this awhile back. We agreed that if something should happen to one of us, we wanted Montgomery Gentry to keep going. So I talked to my band guys about it. Plus, I knew T-Roy would be right there going, ‘Hey, man, keep this rocking.’ So we’re going to keep Montgomery Gentry rocking.”
At first, I didn’t know whether to keep singing or if we should even put out the CD.
“Here’s To You,” which is being released Friday, was partly designed to celebrate the duo’s 20th anniversary. But as any of their veteran Central Kentucky fans will remind you, the alliance between the two singers was forged long before they officially adopted the Montgomery Gentry name in 1998 and released their first collaborative album, “Tattoos & Scars,” the following spring. The two teamed in the ’80s and eventually became bandmates of another Kentucky country hopeful — Montgomery’s younger brother, John Michael Montgomery. Together the three were staples in Lexington clubs – most prominently, the Austin City Saloon, before John Michael’s solo career took off with “Life’s a Dance” in 1992.
“Playing the Lexington honky tonks five or six nights a week, that was a great experience for us as far as knowing who we were and how we were able to talk to each other about different things,” Montgomery said. “We’ve seen a lot of stuff, man, playing six nights a week, whether someone was going in and getting loaded or someone was coming in who had lost somebody. We were with the working class people that were coming into the bars in Lexington, so we took stories from that for our records. We kind of grew up that way.
“Of course, me and T, we started back even before we started playing at Austin City. It was me and him and John Boy. Even after John went on to sign with Atlantic Records, he would always come back to do charity work in Lexington and surrounding counties. We’d still work with him any time he needed us. Any time he called one of us, he called the other. So me and T, we’ve been together probably about 35 years, when you go through it all.”
I’m not going to lie about it. The first night I was very, very nervous.
Touring to promote “Here’s to You” and it’s lead single “Better Me” (which Gentry sings lead on) commences in full next week. But Montgomery took his first steps as the solo pilot of a championed duo act in mid January with a pair of opening act performances for Alabama.
“I’m not going to lie about it,” Montgomery said. “The first night I was very, very nervous. I’m still nervous. I’m not going to lie about it at all. But this is what we’ve always done, so I know T-Roy is out there with us. All the guys in the band feel the same way.
“You see, that’s the thing about it. Most of our band has been with us for 20 or 25 years. So we’ve all been through everything together. We’ve been through personal stuff together, business stuff together. Our bus has caught on fire. We’ve carried each other and to be honest, a lot us, including T-Roy, have known each longer than we’ve known our wives.”
As scheduled, the closest the tour currently comes to Central Kentucky is a few stops in the Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio areas.
But what about the big picture? What happens after promotion for “Here’s to You” has settled and the long-term reality of a Montgomery Gentry without Troy Gentry sets in? That, Montgomery said, may not wind up being his call.
“I’m going to look at it this way,” he said. “I always believe in taking one step at a time. Right now, we have this CD, so I’m going to work on that. Of course, we don’t call our audience members fans, we call them friends, and we’ve got a lot of friends out there around the world that have our backs. I figure they’ll decide what we should do. They’ll let me know.”