Montgomery Gentry have no illusions about who they – or their fans – are. It's split-rail basic music made for people working 60 hour weeks, needing that 10-20 hours of overtime to make ends meet. They're people who work hard, love hard, party hard and if life is hard, refuse to buckle under. It's that commitment to surviving that's helped the Lexington, Kentucky-based duo sell well over a million copies of their Tattoos & Scars debut and 500,000 of their follow-up Carrying On.
"There's heavy stuff in this world, man," allows Troy Gentry of the burning eyes and piercing tenor. "Me and Eddie, we're lucky. You think about what other people have gone through and maybe what some record we've made has meant to them, and it makes you realize what this music is really all about. It's not Eddie's and my music, it's theirs – and that's the way it should be."
My Town, Montgomery Gentry's eagerly anticipated third Columbia release, reflects this expanding vision of their music. With a producer switch to organic roots-master Blake Chancey – the man who helmed the Dixie Chicks full-bore rockin' acoustic attack – Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry honed their sense of sound into something broader, more focused on lives being lived and more expansive in terms of the sonicscape.
"Our sound isn't very polished and it's not really put together," admits gruff-voiced Eddie Montgomery. "When you see us live, you're seeing a bunch of friends who grew up together, listening to the same records and the same dream – and we found a way to keep going towards it.
"Figure we were kids who grew up listening to people who mastered their craft and didn't ever really worry about labels…because that's not what moves you! I just know that what we listened to, it sounded very country to me… it was very, very in-your-face country, which is why we liked it. You listen to Skynyrd or the Allmans, it's just as country as Hank Sr. in its intensity, what they were singing about."
It's hard to explain music that stands up for itself, that defends the honor of the everyday, that champions people just trying to get by. It tends, by nature, to be big, sweeping, marked by lyrics that offer dignity to the overlooked busting his butt for the scraps of the American dream.
With a muscular, guitar-driven attack, Eddie and Troy have forged a sound that's as potent as 130 proof, as driving as the last hundred miles, as powerful as those emotions that defy mere words. Listen to the ravaged loser trying to claw his way back to nothing in "Free Fall," confessing "I'm digging a hole for my dignity;" the desolate jilted man trying to outrun the memories in "Speed," explaining his need for a muscle car because "it's the kind that makes you feel stronger than you are;" or the shattered soul of "Lonesome," coping with the mocking beat of his heart in the wake of a cold divorce, and know this is music for the moments when there's nothing to say.
"Those songs remind me of mistakes I've made, or people close to me have," explains
Montgomery resignedly. "Those are the things you have to live with, and they hang on, because there's nothing so loud as the sound of your heart breaking when it's your fault. And you know – as much as I love the rockin' stuff we do, there's a part of me that really loves that hardcore country."
Listen to "Break My Heart Again," the rumination on sabotaging love and happiness from a ne'er do well who wonders, "how can a lonely man, hold love right there in his hand and let it go?" and understand that the best country music is based on the inherent conflicts of the human soul. But even as the song pumps along, asking all the obvious questions in that deep dark baritone, it's obvious that this is a conflicted species – and getting by is a whole lot better than most will admit.
"You know what I like about us?" asks Gentry, when faced with the prospect of defining their place in the modern musical panorama. "We lived in the honky tonks… We lived there, saw life happen, watched stuff going down that sometimes broke your heart or made you laugh. But when you're out there, you learn not only to deal with it, but to understand it…and that's something – IF you're paying attention you can share with other people trying to get through whatever.
"We're real," Gentry continues. "We do what we do. We are what we know. People understand that. They respect that about us – and the people that like this music, they know we care about them. Whether it's a song like ‘My Town,' which is saying that there's a lot to be said for where you come from and staying attached, or ‘Scarecrow,' which is all about escaping and being what you dream, those songs give them something to hang onto and believe in their lives." Certainly "My Town" celebrates the small town, big dreams, ultimate truth reality as well as any song to come out of Nashville. Pitting Montgomery's deep seriousness as he embraces the details against Gentry's arcing tenor railing against father knows best, but home supercedes, it is a classic MG moment. It is the same rage against the status quo, but feel the freedom in knowing that fires the rabble-rousing, music-as-refuge-and-revival of "Hell, Yeah."
"Our audience is definitely working class," says Montgomery. "Whether they own their own business, work in factories or on farms, hospitals, schools or wherever… maybe future workers who're still going to school… these are people who know about needing to make that car payment, figure out the rent and the groceries.
"Everybody needs a release. But these folks really need it, deserve it. And music's better than anything you can drink or smoke or snort or whatever…If we can do that, make people forget or get down, then we've done our job.
"T-Roy and I want them to look at us as people who will fight for their rights, aren't afraid to stand up for ‘em. We won't give up on what we believe in, but we're gonna help ‘em blow it out, too ‘cause that's just as important. I might just out and light up a cigarette and have a drink… I'm not saying it's for everybody, but it's how we do it – and we're okay with however you wanna do it. If we can all get together, have some fun, then everything else'll be okay."
To that end, the 2000 CMA Duo of the Year – the only act to ever put a cramp in Brooks & Dunn's winning ways – fire both the bawdy jukejoint boogie of "Why Do I Feel Like Running?," featuring NRBQ vet Al Anderson on the rogue's remorse number that grinds like a girl working a pole in 4" stilettos, and the barrelhouse piano-driven laughter-inducing "Bad For Good," which shuns the straight and narrow for the good-timing world of neon, thick smoke and cold, cold beer.
Even as the pair who has stood up for family farmers ("Daddy Won't Sell The Farm"), vets of all persuasions ("Didn't I") and bikers ("Hillbilly Shoes") broaden their scope, they've also enlisted a whole other caliber of musicians. Among the featured players on My Town are Allman Brothers/Rolling Stones vet Chuck Leavell, John Mellencamp/Joe Ely/Storyville alum David Grissom, Southern California steel wizard Dan Dugmore and B-3 smoker Johnny Neel.
Indeed, Neel's naughty thriller "Good Clean Fun" closes My Town. Reprising Gregg Allman's classic come-on, Gentry winks and offers, "That just reminds me of growing up and heading out on the weekends… Friday night, getting ready, knowing you're after a little trouble, a pretty girl, a good time. Back then, there were no hang-ups, no commitments, just, well, a lotta good clean fun."
While Gentry flexes some nubile vocal chops on "Good Clean Fun," he's not afraid to go deep on "Lie Before You Leave," a sinewy song that evokes the best of vintage Santana – even as he recognizes it as the album's greatest departure. "We've done songs about the aftermath or the wreckage of relationships, but the guy's always in agony or alone. He never tells her – and this is actually begging her to give him something to cling to in the misery. Which is what most guys won't do."
Guys are something Montgomery Gentry know about. "The thing about guys – but I think women get this even more than we do," Gentry continues, "is they respond to hard lyrics. Whether it's partying or a day that didn't go so well, give it to ‘em straight. It's not always the fanciest, but its how it is – and people know the difference," says Gentry. "You need down to appreciate up… so we try not to pull punches."
"I've seen a lot of stuff in my life," Montgomery, of the long coat, broad hat and whirling micstand picks up. "If you keep an open mind, pay attention, keep your eyes and ears open, you can learn a lot about life and people. Then you can bring it back into the music – and just keep expanding the circle.
"We have fans come up every night – whether it was someone telling us ‘Cold On (Comin' On)' or ‘Lonely & Gone' got ‘em through a hard time, or they partied all weekend to ‘All Night Long' – we get to be part of people's lives. My Dad always said, ‘use the music to make folk's lives better,' so there you go."
Indeed, the pensive "For The Money" embraces that philosophy outright. With the recognition that ultimately "you gotta satisfy your soul," the song uses that truth to validate the decision to chase music. "Look, me and Eddie'd be doing this even if it were some little bar in Lexington," says Gentry. "We were shocked a label wanted us ‘cause we were so set in our ways, but they also knew we were what we were."
"This is worse than any drug," Montgomery concludes. "You can give up a woman or partyin' or whatever, but that scratch to make music. It gets in your veins – and it ain't coming out. And the more you do it, the more you connect with the people, with the friends we've made through these songs, well, the deeper the addiction gets.
"We may not have all the answers. We may not change the face of music. But you know what? We're gonna stay on the road; we're gonna play for the folks who wanna listen – and we're gonna be here for their highs and their lows and their in-betweens."
But why listen to them? One and a half million fans have stood up and been counted – and the media has agreed in kind. The Village Voice opined, "they work a hybrid variation on the demented wildass abandon of Hank Jr. and the compulsively regretful hell-raisin' of Waylon," while Goldmine declared the pair offers "proud Southern manifestos with a take-me-as-I-am attitude. MG excel in outlaw brand country." Entertainment Weekly raved, "their music is so contagiously hooky and hellbound, you'll think Waylon was wrong: This outlaw bit ain't never getting out of hand!" And USA Today recognized their antecedents thusly, "before they're done, they'll get to Lynryd Skynyrd, the Allmans and Hank Williams, Jr. and do justice to them all."