Eddie Montgomery has a raspy growl, voiced with what I imagine to be a naughty, laughing smile, that he does during each of the first few songs on Montgomery Gentry’s new, sixth album Back When I Knew It All. It’s often almost in the background. With Troy Gentry, who has the more polished singer’s voice in the forefront, Montgomery will rasp a deep “Oh yeah” for emphasis. You can read a lot within that growl, about the duo and their music. It implies a streak of wild. It says, we might be singing purty right now, but we’re bad boys. It is one with the electric guitars that form a key part of the fabric throughout, playing riffs and solos somewhere between Southern-rock and ‘80s pop-metal. And it fits with many of the characters here: the men drinking from a flask at the back of the Greyhound bus, the couple fleeing the country club for a country bar (trading clams casino for chips and salsa), and the family tree that’s a “long line of losers”, “half outlaw / half boozer”.
On Back When I Knew It All, possibly more often than singing about outlaws and boozers, they’re either doling out learned words of wisdom or telling stories of people taking advice from older, wiser figures. Their last album was titled Some People Change. This one is populated with people, or more accurately men, who seem to have changed. They had wild times in their youth but have grown more thoughtful. They are trying to figure things out, to improve themselves. There are at least two songs, “One Trip” and “It Ain’t About Easy”, where grizzled old-timers dole out words of wisdom. The title track, already a successful radio hit, has a nostalgic summertime feeling which is infectious, recalling some similar numbers on co-writer Trent Wilmon’s excellent 2008 album Broken In. Yet wrapped up in that summertime disguise is the notion that the years bring education, enlightenment even, and will continue to: “I’ve done some growing up / and I’m still growing up.” He’ll never be as smart as he once (thought he) was, ‘cause now he knows there’s always more to know.
Sometimes the change is conventional, even stereotypical, e.g. the wild man ‘tamed’ by the love of a good woman. But within most of their songs about growth, life isn’t treated as having easy answers, at least not any that human beings can find. “God Knows Who I Am”, one song of devotion proclaims, even if we can’t know who we are. The unstated idea there is that we will never know who we are, at least until we meet our maker. All we can do is roll with it, and do our best. The more Montgomery Gentry sing about, for example, becoming “the man I want to be” (on “Roll With Me”), the more this starts to resemble some kind of men’s movement. A new Iron John, perhaps? Still, they turn that sort of self-help-talk into anthems that more often than not resemble radio singles, potential big hits. “Look Some More” takes a feeling of restlessness, of uncertainty, and turns it into a huge hook that crashes through hard, as a release: “I don’t know what I’m looking for / so I guess I’ll go and look some more.” In “Roll With Me”, our protagonist has a spiritual awakening of sorts, one that convinces him to take life slower and improve himself. The music has an ease to it fits right, while Gentry, more the crooner than the rougher-voiced Mongtomery, sings precisely and strongly.
“One in Every Crowd” isn’t one of their “feelings” songs, far from it. It’s a party song about a guy who can turn into room into a party; never mind that he kind of sounds like a jerk, jumping on a table, taking off his shirt and ordering people around. Never mind it because the song makes him sound like a hero. A chorus built for an arena full of people to sing along to certainly doesn’t hurt. The “hey y’all” part of it is especially made for singing; it’s a Bon Jovi hook, Southern-ized. They do something similar with the chorus of “Now You’re Talkin’”, but overdo it (more Def Leppard-style, actually, though not as smooth), hitting the point enough times that it feels more a burden than a rush. With “One in Every Crowd”, though, they nail it. The chorus, “There’s one in every crowd / and it’s usually me!”, turns the instant-party guy into every single person listening to the song. Especially the way they sing it, with their voices lifting the song up the moment it turns personal. “In his mind he’s a rockstar”, they sing about their subject, and in that moment every one listening turns into that star.
That turn towards the public is essentially what Montgomery Gentry is about, what they do well. They choose songs that offer that big-audience connection, but if it wasn’t there they’d try and find a way to sing it into existence. “Long Line of Losers” is about feeling like you’re not the only one who messes up life, and about family being a part of you no matter what. “It Ain’t About Easy” makes hard work and pain a universal experience, at least for hard-working folk like “the people” who are listening to these songs. The opening track “The Big Revival” is about a religious revival meeting, but as they sing it, it’s about the communal experience, more so than in John Anderson’s 2001 version of the song. Anderson’s version is grittier, and he “gets” the levels of meaning more. Despite Montgomery’s wicked laugh highlighting the last word in the line “a true believer can survive rattlesnakes and cyanide”, Montgomery Gentry manage to smooth over the song’s creepier side. They make it feel like a populist anthem, almost against the way it was written. That’s a skill, making songs that pull all listeners into the mix, whether they fit the target audience or not. They’re not about subtlety as much as connection. To flip the words to one of their songs around, it ain’t about tough, it’s about easy.