How do you hold a homecoming for someone who has never been away?
In the case of Central Kentucky star John Michael Montgomery, the answer is not as obvious as it might seem. Sure, he has lived in Jessamine County throughout a hit-making career of more than 15 years. Rewind the time machine a bit more to include his upbringing and his extensive performance apprenticeship in local honky-tonks alongside older brother Eddie and family pal Troy Gentry (you got it, of Montgomery Gentry fame) and you will discover that the singer has also, at various times, called Fayette, Boyle and Garrard counties home.
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But the homecoming element comes in when you look at Montgomery's performance calendar. For a bona fide Kentucky country celebrity, he just doesn't seem to find his way back to perform in the Bluegrass very often.
That will all change Friday night, when Montgomery headlines Lexington's biggest outdoor concert event of the year. As the lead performer for the annual July Fourth country bonanza known as Red, White and Boom, he will follow sets by six nationally noted country artists, including fellow Kentuckian Sarah Johns. And once he's done, the sky will explode.
Now that's a homecoming.
“I'm tremendously excited,” Montgomery said. “I'm also really nervous. I haven't played here in a while, so I want to put on the best show I've ever done. I'm genuinely more excited about this than any show I've done in a long time.”
The Red, White and Boom performance will find Montgomery beginning a new chapter of his career — work with his own record label — and discarding some troublesome habits that briefly brought his entire working life to a halt this spring.
The road to Stringtown
Since his debut album and single, both titled Life's a Dance, forged a nationwide fan base for Montgomery in 1992, the singer has recorded extensively for two major labels, Atlantic and Warner Bros.
But after the popularity of 2004's album Letters From Home closed out his Warner Bros. contract, Montgomery chose the path of a free agent. Rather than simply preparing a new album for independent release, he sought to organize a formal label of its own, one that would eventually sign and nurture new artists while continuing the visibility of Montgomery's music.
“I finally got to take the shackles off,” Montgomery said of leaving major labels behind. “Let's face it. The majors are great for getting you started. They get you heard. But there is always the other side of the coin, where they don't always let the artist be as creative as they can be. And that kind of aggravated me.”
So began the story of Stringtown Records, a new Nashville-based label that will issue Montgomery's 11th album (excluding anthologies) in September as its flagship release. Titled Time Flies, the album mixes songs steeped in electric honky-tonk (Mad Cowboy Disease) with radio-friendly ballads (Let's Get Lost) in a way that closely approximates Montgomery's Atlantic and Warner Bros. albums. But the difference this time is that the singer was able to choose, write and record songs at his own pace.
“I named the label after a little town in Mercer County,” Montgomery said of Stringtown. “I drove though it all the time. But it took me two years to get a trademark for the name. By the time that happened, the major labels were all buying each other out. Then, once we hired people to run things at Stringtown, I started working on the new album. That began last fall with the hope of having it done by February. By the end of April, I turned it in. For me, it's all about doing the album right first and then building everything else around it.”
Of course, with great artistic independence comes greater responsibility for a career that already afforded little down time. Recording deadlines and preparations for upcoming concert tours took their toll — so much so that by the time Time Flies was finished, Montgomery was, by his own description, “worn out and beat down.”
And so, for a month, he shut down.
Disappearing and getting back
On May 8, Montgomery posted on his Web site that he was “disappearing for a while.” The reasons were plainly stated: He was checking into a rehabilitation center.
“I was taking sleep medication, anxiety medication and drinking on top of that,” Montgomery said. “Plus, my body was telling me, ‘You need a break.' But my brain was saying, ‘No, you don't have time for that.'
“So I just woke up one morning and told my wife, ‘I need to go somewhere to get my psyche back into shape.'”
And so, as Time Flies' first single, If You Ever Went Away, made initial rounds on the airwaves, Montgomery checked into Cumberland Heights, a Nashville drug and alcohol treatment center.
“You just shut the world off in a place like that. You feel guilty at first, though. I had a wife and kids. I had a new record label. But I just had to shut it all off. This was all about going in and having these professional people get inside me emotionally and physically. It was about letting them rebuild me, really, because I was just beat down. I needed some help to get back into shape.”
Back on the road this month, Montgomery says he feels better than he has “in at least five years.” With his health back on track, the singer also is looking ahead to another main artistic objective of Stringtown Records.
“To sit here and think I'm guaranteed another five or 10 years of hit records is probably naive,” Montgomery said. “But the big-picture goal is to use Stringtown as a tool for me to sign other artists, help develop their careers and let that eventually be the focus of my own career. If I still want to go out and tour, I still have that option. Hopefully, with the new album, I can sustain myself for a while on radio. It's been five years since I've had an album out, though. So I've got to reposition myself back into the game a little.
“But I'd love to produce or co-produce albums for other artists. I've always been a knob-turner ever since I played the nightclubs. I used to drive my brother crazy because I'd be on and off the stage a hundred times a night, tweaking the sound mix. He'd just look at me and go, ‘John Michael, would you just leave those freakin' knobs alone and get up here and sing?'
“I love that part of the business, too. Anymore, I probably enjoy going into the studio and making a record as much anything else.”