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John Michael Montgomery returned home to sing with his personal unsung heroes. His performance brought tears to the eyes of the fans and family members lucky enough to attend.
“My mom and dad, who worked so hard for so many years, are finally getting to celebrate and to get some recognition. They’re the unsung heroes of my career,” the handsome superstar told COUNTRY WEEKLY shortly after the show, held Father’s Day weekend near Lancaster, Ky.—Nicholasville.
“It’s like old times—the best feeling in the world—all of us singing onstage together again just like when I was a kid,” John Michael said during a backstage interview held on his bus. “The only difference is that we’re all older and have our own lives.”
A couple thousand well-wishers drove to the Garrard County (Ky.) Fairgrounds to honor John Michael’s dad, Harold Montgomery, a 53-year-old musician who was hanging up his guitar for the last time after a successful yet low-key career in country music.
Harold’s got matters more important than stage shows and set lists to worry about: He’s suffering from prostate cancer.
“I was in country music for 30 years because I loved it,” the affable patriarch of the Montgomery clan said. “I was always happy just playing for my own people right here in the county.”
His own people were playing with him at the show, as he and his superstar son shared the stage with the Hired Hands band, which included son Eddie, 31, daughter Becky, 23, brother Calvin and ex-wife Carol (Snookie) Hasty.
The family gathering was marked with tears of sadness as well as joy. The strain of Harold Montgomery’s three-year battle with prostate cancer showed in his face and movements. Friends said he is in constant pain.
“I went on the road with John at first, not to perform but to be with him, until my health got to breaking so bad,” stated Harold. “It’s not good, but I’ve been lucky. I’ve been fighting it for three years and have done real good. I have really good doctors and an extremely strong will to live, so I’ve accomplished a lot.”
John Michael sports his mother’s to-die-for dimples and dreamy blue eyes, “but he has my profile and thinks like I do,” he said.
“I was never one to ever get really excited over anything,” Harold said. “I’m sort of laid-back and he’s the same way. He’s a cross between both of us but doesn’t have the exact look of either one of us.”
The “exact look” John Michael ended up with is one that churns the hearts of female fans across the country, and it’s been that way since childhood.
Girls discovered John Michael at an early age, long before he was ready to discover them.
“They started following him home when he was 12 years old,” his mother said. “He’d say, `What do they want?’ And I said, `Oh, you’ll understand later.’ They’d aggravate him to death. You’d see four or five little girls following him around. He couldn’t stand it.”
That changed. John Michael, sporting a very short summer haircut and sans his leather jacket, was accompanied to the concert by Crystal White, his pretty blonde girlfriend from the University of Kentucky. “Not serious,” he said of their relationship, “but somebody I enjoy going out with.”
John Michael made the most of his trip home, because time off is rare for the man who picked up two coveted Academy of Country Music Awards this year—one for Top New Male Vocalist, and one for “I Love the Way You Love Me” as Song of the Year.
This break from the road—he’s on a 10-month tour with Reba McEntire—was for family, and like any reunion it brought out old stories.
Snookie told the one about John Michael’s early public performance.
His Sunday school class was once asked if anyone could sing. “I can,” a very young John Michael piped confidently. Asked what he would like to perform, he had a shocking reply: “Behind Closed Doors.”
“John was a quiet, sort of introverted child. He was really quiet and kept to himself—until he started to sing,” his mother told COUNTRY WEEKLY. “Then he became a little ham. He didn’t care—he’d get up in front of anybody and sing.”
At age 14, cleaning out a neighbor’s fence row earned him a nasty rash from poison ivy, but enough money to buy his first guitar. “I think that $65 cost me $150 in doctor bills,” Snookie Hasty said.
Harold taught John Michael some chords, but “he learned most of it on his own,” his father recalled. The reunion gave them a chance for a reprise.
After vocals by his father, brother, sister, uncle and mother, John Michael hit the stage to swap smokin’ guitar licks with his dad on Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues.”
John Michael’s dad is no stranger to the stage. Harold’s career capstone was performing on the Grand Ole Opry in 1976 with Ernest Tubb and the Wilburn Brothers.
Eddie and John Michael left the Hired Hands in 1982 when their parents divorced and their father semi retired. John Michael eventually went solo, and millions of albums later, he’s made fans across the globe. Only one mattered at this show.
Harold’s eyes glistened as he sat on a stool and proudly watched John Michael finish their duet of his hit, “I Swear.” By the end, the son also shed a few tears.
John Michael told the crowd it probably be his only duet.
For the finale, the entire Montgomery clan sang Chuck Berry’s rock ’n’ roll classic, “Johnny B. Goode.” They sang loud and strong, just like Harold taught young John Michael.
“I remember one time I was singing,” John Michael said, “and he looked at me and said, `If you’re going to be a singer, you’ve got to sing it with heart. Don’t just stand there and sing.’ He looked at me and belted out a big verse of a song loud as hell. I was like, `Wow, I don’t know if I can do that or not.’ Because I was real shy, you know, and I’d sing real soft.
“But he gave me a lot of good advice, not just with music but as a person. My dad’s always treated people like he wanted to be treated. He’s always had a passion for people, friends, and would give the shirt off his back for anybody. I grew up watching him do that, and I’m pretty much the same way myself.
“I’m proud to say that I’m just like my dad.”