"I never have and never will cut songs I don't believe in.
I know I can always sing those songs whether I do it for 20,000 or my family. Those songs can't be taken away from me, so I try to choose songs that will last."
Ask John Michael Montgomery why he's able to continue to return to the top of the charts, and the soft-spoken Kentuckian will shrug and quip, "Good songs." He's right, too, of course. A look at his 12-year career reveals a stunning knack for finding classic hits, and he's back again with yet another with the title track of his new Warner Bros. album, Letters From Home.
John Michael's modesty keeps him from pointing out how strong his track record is at finding career-making songs - and, just as importantly, how good he is at delivering them. By now, it's clear that he's a master at finding the heart of the song. Whether conveying the subtle drama of "Letters From Home" and "The Little Girl," the tender romance of "I Swear" and "I Can Love You Like That," the breezy philosophy of "Life's a Dance," or the heart-pumping power of "Be My Baby Tonight" or "Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)," John Michael has proven his ability at giving a song just the right emotion or energy it needs.
"The other day someone told me that I'd had more career songs than any current artist," John Michael says. "I don't know about that. All I can say is that I work very hard at finding songs. I know they're not going to just fall into my lap. I spend so much time listening and going through tapes, because I'm only as good as the songs I sing."
So what's his secret? John Michael says it's all about the story. As a guitarist and former sound man, he loves musical arrangements and great instrumental parts. But listeners don't necessarily remember a good solo; they do remember how a song's lyrics touched them.
"I think country music is all about the lyrics," John Michael says. "Doing something clever musically will make a good lyric better, no doubt about it. But no matter what you do to a bad lyric, it's not going to affect anyone no matter how good the music is. People respond to what a songs says, whether it's something that tugs at their heart or just makes them smile."
As soon as John Michael heard "Letters From Home," he knew he found something special. "It grabbed me from the first line, as soon as I heard that opening, 'Dear Son, it's almost June'," John Michael says. "I thought that was different, and it made me want to know what came next. Then I heard the chorus, and I was like, 'Wow! That's really powerful!' But sometimes you hear a good opening and a good chorus, and the rest of the song lets you down. Well, this one didn't. The last verse is the strongest one in the whole song."
John Michael also liked the message and how it brought world events down to a personal way. "Here's a song that I felt didn't really have to do with war, it had to do with people who love each other and miss each other," he says. "It's not about who's winning or losing, who we're fighting, who's dying, who's for it or against it. It's about this little white piece of paper with words on it, and those words can tear us to pieces when we read them. It's about how emotional a letter can be to a person's life."
Even more than early in his career, John Michael searches for songs packed with emotion and morals. Life experience and fatherhood have changed him, and a song needs to strike him as substantial and meaningful to capture his attention. "It just takes a lot more depth to reach me now than it did back then," he says. "I feel I know a whole lot more about life and the world we're living in, so it takes a lot more to impress me when it comes to songwriting."
Those values suggest why John Michael remains a musical force at a time when many of his peers have been shoved aside for younger performers. With 15 No. 1 singles, 16 million albums sold and a line of awards crowding his mantle, John Michael long ago achieved his initial dreams of becoming a country music star. But early on, he decided to focus on longevity rather than becoming a skyrocketing star that burned out quickly.
"I've been singing since I was a kid, and I would've hated to see it come and go all at once," he says. "I've been very fortunate to have a lot of peaks and valleys in my career. I've seen a lot of changes since 1992. The main thing I've learned is to just be myself, to treat people kindly, and if you give radio a good song, they'll play it. I know how lucky it is to be successful in this business, and I've always tried to let the fans, the deejays and the people I work with how much I appreciate them."
He's also learned that success can mean a balance of sticking to what you love and adapting to the times. On Letters From Home, he collaborates for the first time with famed record producer Byron Gallimore (Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Terri Clark.) "We hit it off like we've known each other for 10 years," John Michael says of co-producing his album with Gallimore. "We're both so easy-going. There were no egos, just two guys wanting to make a great album. We both love songs. Byron's like me, he loves technology but he knows it's the stories that make an album, not the sounds. We kept the focus on what was important, and we had a great time together."
He credits Gallimore for helping him keep the quality level so high. From fun tunes like "Goes Good with Beer," "It Rocked" and "Little Devil" to philosophical stories like "Good Ground," "Cool" and "That's What I'm Talking About," John Michael put together an album packed with memorable, personable songs with help from his new co-producer.
"I feel so strongly about this collection of songs," John Michael says. "You always want to feel like you're doing your best, but this time I finished knowing that's what had happened. I felt like I put my best foot forward with this album, and it's great to know that it's getting such a good reception already."
Meanwhile, John Michael's outlasted a series of accidents that temporarily set him back. He suffered multiple fractures of his right leg while working on his farm on 2001, and since then also he's had surgery for tonsillitis and for a blood circulation problem in his hip. He laughed when he recently sprained his wrist; he figured the fact that it didn't break means he's having better luck now.
Meanwhile, the injuries and surgeries have a bright spot: He was able to spend a lot of time in the last few years at his Kentucky home with his wife Crystal and their two children, Madison and Walker. "We've been through some hard times, but I couldn't be happier than I am right now," he says. "I have a great family, a great home, and I just made a record I'm really proud. How can I ask for any more than that?"
--- from the official John Michael Montgomery website