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John Michael Montgomery has a new house, a new record and a hunger to be back on top – but still, something's missing

"I never thought I'd ever have a place like this," declares John Michael Montgomery as he surveys the sprawling new home he shares with wife Crystal, daughter Madison, 6, and son Walker, 4, near his boyhood home outside Lexington, Ky.

"I wanted a log cabin out in the woods, a nice little simple place," he continues with a smile. "I always felt like if I could own a nice home – doesn't have to be big, just be able to pay for it – a pickup truck and a boat, then I'd be doin' pretty good."

By that standard, or pretty much any other, John Michael is doing "pretty good."

And his home amid the rolling hills of a former horse farm definitely reflects his successes – and his passions.

From the converted barn that houses the walk-in cooler where he keeps the game he hunts, to the three big, friendly dogs lounging just outside the kitchen entrance and the memorabilia of family and career placed throughout the house – John Michael is in his element.

His 25-acre home site is the larges piece of 60 acres he bought when he and Crystal decided their former home – ironically, a log house – wasn't the place they wanted to rear their kids. So they built this house, blending a Southern Georgian Colonial exterior with a French Provincial interior, and moved into their new digs in September 2001.

To say John Michael has a right to be proud as he looks around his property is putting it mildly.

"Where we came from," he recalls of his early family life, "we grew up in houses that barely had roofs. Roach infested, rat infested, you know? We were just country people. We ate good every night. If we didn't buy it, we went out and shot it. But we just never had anything. All we had was guitars sittin' round the house."

And those guitars made all the difference – for John Michael and brother Eddie of Montgomery Gentry. "We feel so fortunate to get the break in life we did," explains John Michael. "And, considerin' where we come from, the odds of both of us having the success we've had were zero to none."

In John Michael's case, his award-winning recording career has spanned more than a decade and included a string of hits from 1992's "Life's a Dance" through "I Swear," "Sold" and "The Little Girl."

While he candidly admits his latest CD, Pictures, hasn't yet fulfilled the expectations he has for it, he's confident it can with releases like the current single, "Country Thang," an ode to John Michael's country lifestyle.

"We've just gotta get into the album a little deeper," he explains, "into the songs I feel like my fans out there want to hear. 'Country Thang,' 'Four-Wheel Drive,' 'Love and Alcohol,' 'Pictures' and 'I Wanna Be There' – those are my five favorites. And I think 'Four-Wheel Drive' is the biggest sleeper on the album."

The good-time tune has playfully suggestive lyrics that make listeners think about new meanings to the term "off-road experience."

"I get standin' ovations for it when I do it in shows," he declares with a grin. "People absolutely fall over when I play it!"

While John Michael's been working the road hard, doing charity events and promoting Pictures, he's also finishing a project that's dear to his heart – his first Christmas album. He's recorded a good bit of it in the home studio he designed and installed himself.

John Michael plays back some of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," then tells the story of another song on the CD – a song he wrote for his late father, Harold, a guitar player himself who died in 1994.

"It was on my dad's birthday, December 6," recalls John Michael of the date when he wrote the song last year. "And it was about 3 o'clock in the morning. I couldn't sleep. So I said, 'You know I'll just piddle around here.' I came up with this idea about, with all this war and everything goin' on, if I was seeing my last days, if I was gonna be facin' the man upstairs tomorrow what would I say? So I wrote this little thing and called it 'A Daddy's Prayer.' "

After he finishes a playback of the touching recording, John Michael says quietly, "That's from my heart, you know? And I thought it came out pretty special. Something my kids can have for years to come."

As if on cue, Walker pops in to visit his daddy in the studio. John Michael says it's a little early to tell if Walker's got a good singing voice, but according to his mama, he's already practicing for a career on the road.

"Almost every day," grins Crystal. "Walker will get his little guitar and say, 'Mama, call Tank [John Michael's bus driver]. I'm goin' to Nashville!' "

Madison – showing off the vacancy in her smile left by the loss of her first baby tooth – announces that she intends to take another career path.

"I'm gonna be a vet!" she declares with a big grin.

As he watches his kids, it's obvious John Michael adores them. But he's been in the music business long enough to know that separations from family are a fact of life. That's especially true as he tries to get back to the top spot he once regularly occupied in the charts.

"Yeah, that's gonna take a few sacrifices," admits John Michael. "It's probably gonna pull me away from my family more than I have been in the past. But the kids are not infants anymore. So they kinda understand a little bit better about what Daddy's doin'. And, bottom line, I'm still gonna always make it so I can see my kids grow up.

"But there's no doubt about it, what I'm tryin' to do here is be the comeback kid. My career's doin' well, and I've had a good, solid 10 years, but I'd like to get another good, solid 10 years and make a strong run at getting' back into the big leagues again."

As he makes that determined run it appears John Michael's got everything in life he could ever want – a great family, great house and even tentative plans for a fall all-in-the-family tour with Montgomery Gentry.

But is anything missing?

"Yeah," confides John Michael quietly, "My father. I don't think I'll ever quit missing him – every time I look at my kids, because he never got to see my children. He got to see my brother's, but he didn't get to see mine. And he loved his grandkids and had a heart bigger than this world. I look at my kids and think, man, I wish my dad was here to enjoy them.

"And they'd enjoy him, too."