Picking different styles

April 08, 1994|By J. D. Considin | J. D. Considin,Sun Pop Music Critic

When John Michael Montgomery was a kid, he never figured he'd end up as a big-time country music singer. In fact, he never thought he'd be a singer at all.

"I was a guitar player," he says. "When I got in a band, my objective was to be a good guitar player. I actually focused on that before I even focused on being a lead singer -- or being a

singer, period.

"I'm probably more accomplished on guitar," he adds, over the phone from a tour stop in Champaign, Ill. "I used to spend three to five hours a day, every day, just playing guitar and learning. I was trying to be the best guitar player out there, until I realized that being a lead singer would probably get me a little farther."

He wasn't just learning the Chet Atkins songbook, either. "I grew up listening to a lot of Southern rock and blues," he says. "Also Eric Clapton and stuff like that. I just didn't sit around and learn how to play country licks.

"If I want to chicken pick, I know how to do that from Ricky Skaggs albums. If I want to play some blues, I learned how to do that with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton albums. If I want to throw some good southern rock stuff in there, I had the Allman Brothers, Bob Seger and stuff like that."

That diversity comes through loud and clear on "Kick It Up," Montgomery's second and latest album, which is currently number 27 on the Billboard charts. There's plenty of rock and roll energy to songs like "Be My Baby Tonight" and the title tune, and no shortage of blues guitar to "Full-Time Love." But at the same time, tunes like "I Swear" and "Rope the Moon" show that he's equally at home with ballad singing.

As much as he likes having a mix of material on his album, Montgomery admits to a special fondness for the up-tempo stuff. "It's the kind of music that, if I was still playing clubs, I would like to play and like to hear. I still think in terms of a club atmosphere, what kind of songs would I play in a nightclub that would turn these people on to dance. One of my main focuses in clubs was getting people out on dance floors."

So why were the first two singles both ballads?

"We had kind of an up-tempo song that ended 'Life's a Dance,' " he says, referring to his first album, "and 'I Swear' seemed to fit in there real well. Plus, it came off so well in the studio that we thought it was the strongest choice for a first song.

"With 'Rope the Moon,' we had a lot of people out there that really liked that song. So we decided to go ahead and put 'Rope the Moon' out, because it was pretty much highly requested. But we're planning on taking the album out with a bang, so probably the next two releases will be upbeat."

Besides, Montgomery doesn't worry about his fondness for rock and blues leaving listeners thinking he's not a dyed-in-the-wool country singer. Time, he feels, will ultimately prove him right.

"Hank Williams, back then, was not considered country at all," he points out. "He was more of a hillbilly rock kind of guy. He was totally different.

"The artists coming into today's country music listened to southern rock and pop rock and all quite a bit back in the late '70s and early '80s. Those influences are going to shine through. That's why country music has become a lot more versatile than what it used to be, and not so much stereotyped.

"When I was growing up, my friends always used to call 'em 'twang singers.' That's not the way it is anymore. We still have the twang if we want it. But if we don't, we don't have to. We can go from one to the other."

Country sampler

To hear excerpts from John Michael Montgomery's current album, "Kickin' It Up," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four digit code 6232 after you hear the greeting.

To hear excerpts from Reba McEntire's current album, "Greatest Hits Volume Two," call Sundial and punch in the four digit code 6151 after you hear the greeting.

To hear excerpts from Faith Hill's current album, "Take Me As I Am," call Sundial and punch in the four digit code 6176 after you hear the greeting.

Country concert

What: John Michael Montgomery, with Reba McEntire and Faith Hill

When: Sunday, April 10, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Arena

Tickets: $25.50

Call: (410) 347-2010 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets.

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