An artist can spend months, even years, designing a record to a specific vision, theme or intention. Once completed, the resulting music can be evaluated by critics and fans alike as to how that vision was conveyed. Then there are the times something unplanned occurs, an event so sudden and final that everything shifts. The project that surfaces is the same work the artist intended, but the reception is forever changed.
That’s the reaction that is impossible to shake off as one listens to “Here’s to You,” the eighth studio album by the Central Kentucky-bred country duo Montgomery Gentry, which comes out on Friday.
Erase everything after Sept. 8, 2017 and what you have is a work obviously intended to please longtime fans of Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry — specifically, a country set rooted in Southern rock and all the visceral electricity and party attitudes that come with it. There is clearly a change brewing, though. Several songs loosen the rowdy grip into moods that are perhaps atypically reflective, even a little introspective, for the guys. You hear it in the grooves and you really sense it some of the storylines.
But then real life interceded. Two days after the album’s recording sessions were completed, Gentry died in a helicopter crash — an event so immediate and devastating that taking in any of “Here’s To You” without consideration of such a loss is impossible. You sense that right away in the album’s leadoff single “Better Me” — a tune about the recognition of maturity with age sung with soft-spoken candor by Gentry.
“I’m a little less reckless, little less wild card,” Gentry sings with reserved candor. “Breaking hearts, kinda senseless. Yeah, I’m coming around.”
The sentiment darkens considerably for “Whatcha Say We Don’t,” where Gentry’s easygoing tenor outlines a dovetailing romance where a break-up is the expected, but not necessarily best outcome. It’s as though all the celebratory mischief that fueled so many Montgomery Gentry tunes over the past two decades turns inward to create a jittery, rockish tension. It sounds like Fleetwood Mac in a seriously foul mood.
Montgomery rides the changes just as profoundly. On “King of the World,” his desires are scaled back to simple joys told over a melody that doesn’t ride shotgun to a blazing Southern grind, but instead strides comfortably along to a wiry, back porch acoustic guitar line with a hint of danger. But his biggest surprise closes the album. On “All Hell Broke Loose,” the story unfolds in a way not at all in keeping with its title. Essentially a song of redemption, the rugged, rural contours of Montgomery’s singing give the devil his due in a tale where love, with modest trepidation, conquers all.
Who knows what a future now unalterably changed will hold for Montgomery without Gentry. But if the whole party were to end tomorrow, “Here’s to You” would be an impressive final chorus — a rumination of love and life now made deeper in ways the duo could have never contemplated.