I Have Hope

John Michael Montgomery opens up about his new record, his family and why he was so happy to go to rehab.

To see a smiling, fit John Michael Montgomery chipping golf balls to a specially constructed practice green about 25 yards from his gorgeous home a few miles outside Lexington, Ky., or to watch him grilling up a tasty batch of chicken for guests as his wife, Crystal, and kids—daughter Madison, 12, and son Walker, 9—enjoy the pool behind him, it’s easy to think: here’s a man who has it all.

And, in many respects, he does. In addition to his loving family and great home, John Michael is one of the most successful country singers in the past 20 years, with a string of huge hits—a half dozen No.1’s and 16 million records sold—to his credit, beginning with his first, “Life’s a Dance” in 1992, and including “I Swear,” “I Can Love You Like That,” “Sold (The Grundy Country Auction),” “The Little Girl,” “Letters From Home” and others that have helped define modern country music.

He’s also got a great new Time Flies album, on sale Oct. 14, produced for his own Stringtown Records, featuring a collection of songs—including powerful current single “Forever,” “If You Ever Went Away,” “Drunkard’s Prayer,” “Mad Cowboy Disease,” “Brothers Till The End,” “All In A Day” and five others—that rank among the best he’s recorded.

But what’s not so obvious is that, for much of those 20 years, John Michael, 43, has fought to overcome a series of personal challenges—anxiety attacks that have plagued him since his teens, seven operations from 2000 to 2005, a degenerative ear nerve disease called acoustic neuroma, and a dependence on prescription drugs and alcohol taken to help withstand the terror of the anxiety attacks and the pain of the surgeries—that would have done in a lesser man.

He recently sat down with CW on the patio of his home in Kentucky to give a candid recounting of what he’s been through, and how he’s doing now—plus insights into his new label and album. Here’s part of what he had to say.

For more on John Michael Montgomery, check out the Oct. 20 issue of Country Weekly.

CW
Talk about your new Stringtown label . . . the transition from being on a major to running your own label.
JMM
Well, I think, more than anything, there’s consistency for one thing. Atlantic Records was very consistent. But once they closed down, and a lot of other major labels were startin’ to close down and buy each other out. And Warner Bros. got bought out. I wanted to go somewhere where I felt like I was gonna have a home for a while.
And I don’t think there was any room left with the majors in Nashville for an artist like myself who had already accumulated a lot of hits and already been there, done that. And you’ve got a bunch of new artists that the labels are excited about. And, everyone knows when you’re new and hot . . . labels love that. They can mold you kind of the way they want.
For me, obviously, bein’ a seasoned artist, I didn’t really see myself havin’ a home at a major label. And the independents were fairly full. And I’d always wanted to start up my own label one day to produce other acts actually, so I ended up startin’ up and doin’ my own label for myself. It kinda kicked off a little earlier than I expected. My overall goal is to sign some new artists and produce ‘em.
CW
Gonna wait and see what happens with your album . . . focus on yourself . . . until you think about signing other artists?
JMM
I’m gonna focus on this album . . . one artist at a time. I’m gonna do this album and probably at the end of this year or the beginning of next year, I’m gonna decide on an artist to sign and start workin’ on a project. Along with touring. I won’t have to do another album for me or another artist, so I can tour and focus on tryin’ to break a new artist. ‘Cause I’ve always loved turnin’ knobs. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Probably one of the most satisfying things is to go in and listen to hundreds and hundreds of songs, or write, and then put it all together and put it out and see how it’s perceived. This baby you produced . . . how it grows.
CW
You’ve got the new album, new single, new label . . . new outlook, too? The title of the new album . . . Time Flies . . . have there been times in the past year or two when you thought, “time really is flying” . . . in a good sense . . . then other times when you thought . . . “it is just draggin’ like crazy? Am I ever gonna get out of this dark place I’m in?”
JMM
Well yeah. Anxiety disorders are about the darkest thing people can ever have. I’ve had that for a long time, ever since I was a teenager. They never really got to me.
CW
Did other people know it?
JMM
No. Anxieties are good if they don’t get out of hand. I always used ‘em to my advantage. But after my father passed away in ’94, they just got to be unbearable. But I still kept ‘em hidden for the most part. The only thing that really helped keep ‘em from getting way out of hand was either medication or drinkin’, unfortunately. But I still kept ‘em under control for the most part. Until after I broke my leg in 2000. That’s when I first went through chronic pain, where I was in pain for several months.
And that’s when time seems like it stops, when you’re in chronic pain and you’re waitin’ for a body part to heal up. Then you re-break it, and you deal with that frustration. And I finally got over that, it took me about a year. I was on crutches for several months. And the anxieties really started when I was stuck in the house and couldn’t go anywhere.
And then about three years later when I had the hip replacement. That was like the last blow to me. The anxieties . . . I literally got to where I woke up every day wondering when I was gonna feel like I was havin’ a heart attack and die. ‘Cause it was gonna happen that day.
CW
Is that the kind of thing you’d have anxiety about?
JMM
One of the things I didn’t know I had when I first got famous was . . . I had a really bad case of camera anxiety. One of the things that probably hurt my career more than anything was that I wouldn’t do TV shows. Still cameras didn’t bother me that much. But I never was in front of a regular video camera until I got a record deal. But there was just something about it that scared me to death. I would literally get stage fright. I would lock up so tight I could hardly breathe, let along sing. I could work through it in a song or two, but that’s the thing about TV cameras. You get that one shot and that’s it. You get one opportunity to do well. And I was so afraid of messin’ up I guess. In the nightclubs I didn’t have to worry about that.
But I had seven surgeries in five years. From tonsillectomies, I had my impacted teeth taken out one year. I had to have a bone in my neck taken out. It was just one thing after another. I was constantly havin’ to eat pills to take care of the pain and the anxieties. It was all prescribed. And just visiting doctor after doctor after doctor who could not give me any answers. So, what you do is to start self-medicating. It’s like, okay, your body gets used to a certain amount of pain medication and anxiety medication. So, you’re like, “Okay, if I drink a beer on top of it, it kicks it into gear quicker. The anxieties go away faster. The pain goes away faster.” That’s what started causin’ me the problems . . . makin’ bad decisions like tryin’ to sing the national anthem when I shouldn’t have been at the NASCAR race.
CW
Was that the problem, as opposed to the acoustic neuroma problem?
JMM
They don’t know where acoustic neuromas come from. It’s something that starts growin’ on your ear nerve and slowly kills it. And, as it kills it, when you first get up out of bed or anything like that, your equilibrium is constantly tryin’ to work to keep your balance. And you’ve got one ear goin’ bad, and while it’s goin’ bad, the other one’s tryin’ to adjust.
The anthem was a combination of things. The thing about it is, if I drink or take medication, my equilibrium’s havin’ a hard enough time tryin’ to keep me upright. I would notice that when I was takin’ the medication, I was stumblin’ more than I normally used to. Let’s face it, I came out of nightclubs. I’m an old nightclub pro when it comes to drinkin’. I knew it didn’t feel normal.
Plus, when I did [the anthem], I’d just come back from LA where I doctor gave me a brand new anxiety medication that he just swore by. And I told him I had this national anthem to sing, and I was scared to death. It was gonna be on national TV. But I didn’t want to back out of it, I had to face these demons eventually. Quit shying away from TV.
So I took them the night before. I had a show there, and after the show, I hung out and drank with some buddies. And the next morning, I got up and took the anxiety medications and when I did, they kicked me in the butt. And from the time I took ‘em to the time I walked down to the stage, everything was spinnin’. I should’ve never walked onstage. But at that point, I didn’t care. It was a stupid mistake, and I’ll be embarrassed and humiliated by it for the rest of my life. I feel more bad for my kids than anything, because they’re gonna have to see that one day.
Back then, rehab was probably the answer for me, ‘cause they have the best anxiety program that I’ve ever been in—without medication. When I got out of there, I didn’t need medication for anxiety. I have ‘em now, but I can control ‘em. This was in May, I went to Cumberland Heights. The only reason I really drank was to try to kill anxiety attacks. But before I went in, I was literally havin’ anywhere from five to 10 major anxiety attacks a day where I felt like I was dyin’.
CW
Was there physical pain involved?
JMM
Your heart’s beatin’ out of your chest, you can’t get your breath. You’re sweatin’. I’ve had cases where my arm goes numb. It’s the panic attack where you feel like you’re having a heart attack. And I’ve gone into the hospital before thinkin’ I was dyin’ of a heart attack. And they said, “No, you’re just havin’ a panic attack.”
The problem is, I was havin’ so many of ‘em, that you get to a point, “Well, when I think it’s just another panic attack, it may actually be a heart attack. And I’ll sit there and die, thinkin’ it’s another panic attack.”
So, when you’re having chronic pain and at the same time you’re havin’ these anxiety attacks like I have . . . time stood still for me for a long time. I didn’t know if it was ever gonna end or not. I’m still healin’ up now, tryin’ to recover from years—from 35 to 40 years old—all I did was have surgeries, and try to keep my career goin’.
And people say, “Well, why didn’t you just take a break?” Well, you take a break in this business and you’re gone. I remember I took a break in ’95, when I lost my voice. I was at the top of my game. And I took off the whole year of ’96 and my bookin’ agency was still tryin’ to get me to do shows. I said, “Hey, I have no voice. I’m tryin’ to get my voice back. I’ve never lost my voice before. That’s scary.” They just told everybody I wanted to spend time with my family. They didn’t want everybody to know that I lost my voice. But yet they still wanted me to go out and try to sing. I had an operation . . . but my voice came back after I rested it for a year.
My career, I was probably ready in ’96, if I could’ve gone out and toured like I did in ’95 . . . were’re probably lookin’ at an entertainer of the year nomination . . . everything. Things were set up for things like that to happen. I was rockin’. Unfortunately, the voice didn’t happen.
And a lot of people ask me, “Why are you tellin’ everybody you’ve been in rehab? A lot of people try to hide it.” For one thing, they teach you you’ve gotta share it for it to work for you. And that helps other people.
And I’m tired of hiding the real reason why. People think I’m retired or something. A lot of the radio station people out there are saying, “Well, where’s John been?” I’ve got a new single comin’ out and they’re goin’ “Well, we ain’t heard from him.” The fans are like, “Where’ve you been? We’re so glad you’re back into it.” But I’ve been touring. I haven’t been able to tour as much as I want. And I haven’t been able to put an album out because I haven’t had a label to put an album out.
And the radio stations . . . some of them understand what I’ve gone through and some of them don’t know what I’ve gone through. And some of ‘em play my songs and some of ‘me give me the cold shoulder. It’s one of those things. If people think you’ve taken time off in this business and you want to just come back like that, they just don’t like that. You just can’t pick and choose when you want to stop and go in this business. It’s not like I really had much of a choice. And one of the things that got me in trouble was tryin’ to keep myself in the public eye . . . like tryin’ to do the national anthem and things like that.
CW
Was rehab your idea? Was there an intervention or anything?
JMM
I was doin’ a concert and I was sittin’ on the bus. I was about ready to come out of my skin. I had taken my anxiety medication and everything. People with anxiety also have sleep problems. So I was takin’ a sleep aid at night. I was havin’ anxieties so bad, it was early in the day and I was like, “Well, I’m not gonna drink. I’m just not gonna drink this early in the day.” So I thought, “Well, I’ll try this sleep aid. Maybe it’ll take the edge off and I’ll go to sleep and I’ll wake up and it’ll be show time, and my anxiety attack will be over with.”
And I did. I took it and I woke up, and as soon as I woke up, my anxiety attack started. I started feelin’ like my heart was poundin’ out of my chest. And I started fixin’ me a drink. And I got up on stage and I didn’t do a good show. I was out of it. After that show, I said, “I’m done. This is it. I can’t go on any longer like this. My fans don’t need to see me like this. The promoters. Nobody. And I don’t need to put myself through this anymore.”
I got home and I told my wife, “I need to go somewhere. If I have a chance left at all in my career, makin’ it. If I’ve got a new album comin’ out, I’ve gotta do it with a straight head. I can’t do it in the shape I am now. I need to just go somewhere where I can shut the world off and get around some professional people.” And I actually looked forward to it. I couldn’t wait to get there.
A couple of my friends and band members, I know they were just waitin’ for me to back out, any minute. But they knew how miserable I’d been over the years. But still, I think they thought, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But my manager drove me in there, and I took a deep breath. I was happy to be there. I was happy to be there from the day I got there ‘till the day I left. I learned so much. Every day opened another door for me, learning about the diseases of anxieties and alcoholism. I just got tools that I never had in the past. If I’d gone into this place 10 years ago, my career would’ve probably been a whole different . . . wouldn’t be fightin’ tryin’ to get records played.
CW
How’s life changed for you and the family at home?
JMM
Well, it’s much happier. There’s nothin’ makes you more miserable than sittin’ around with the five years of chronic pain I had with all my surgeries. That’s mostly gone now. I still have a little bit of back pain, but the more I get out and play golf or whatever, the less I have it. I take an Advil if it gets bad . . . or an Aleve or Tylenol. And I don’t like takin’ pills. I don’t take ‘em unless it’s really bad. That’s why I hated takin’ the anxiety medication. I’m not a pill popper. My life was so miserable, I was tryin’ to drown it every day.
CW
Is the acoustic neuroma still there?
JMM
It’ll be there forever. If worse comes to worst, it’ll make me go deaf in that ear. I’m probably over 50 percent there already. Every year it gets worse. The worst that can happen with an acoustic neuroma is that it starts growin’ outward and competing for space. Then you’ve gotta cut it out. Mine is not growing out, it’s just growin’ inward and squeezing . . . staying pretty much the same size.
It’s more common than I thought. As a matter of fact, I read a while back that ZZ Top’s bass player was diagnosed.

It makes it tough when you’re a singer, and you’re tryin’ to listen to things in stereo [he chuckles] and you have this tremendous ringin’ in one ear, and everything sounds distorted. But if that’s the worst thing that ever happens to me, I’m in pretty good shape.

CW
Talk about your fans keeping you in their prayers on your MySpace page.
JMM
I’ve got millions of fans who have stuck with me through all this stuff. And they are more forgiving than the industry is. They’re the ones you have to rely on when you want to continue havin’ a career and keep makin’ music. The fans are the ones who have to speak up and say, “Hey, we’re there for you.” Otherwise you’ll get kicked out the door.
And if the fans don’t call into radio and they don’t make the noise, the radio station doesn’t have to play it. It’s very humbling and it makes you feel like you’ve still got hope when you’ve got people who are willing to give you another chance.
CW
Sounds like you’re on the Jamey Johnson bandwagon . . . three of his tunes on your record.
JMM
“What Did I Do” . . . ”Let’s Get Lost” . . . and “Mad Cowboy Disease.” The guy is an incredible writer. I didn’t even know he’d had other cuts when I got these songs. ‘Cause I don’t look at the songwriters when I listen to ‘em. I listen to the song and if I like it, I like it. I make a conscious effort not to know who wrote them, so I won’t be influenced. I was played these songs and thought, “Wow, these are really cool tunes.”
And I loved his voice. When I found out he had a record deal, I thought, “I can’t believe he’s pitchin’ me these songs.” He’s the real deal, a good writer, good singer, and as raw as they come.”
CW
“Forever” is a song that addresses the possibility of losing the one you love . . . if I’m not being too personal, has there been a time in your troubles when that was a possibility?
JMM
Oh yeah. My marriage, it’s been tough. The kids and my wife and everything. When you’re got a person that’s gone through seven surgeries, drinkin’ too much, takin’ anxiety medication too much. Just havin’ to take medication and drink to survive every day, you’re dealin’ with a person with moods where, from one day to the next, you never know what’s gonna happen. Not to mention you draw yourself in, you become anti-social. If I had to be around anybody, I had anxiety attacks about that. Because I was afraid they’d see me havin’ one. I just was not a real . . . I wasn’t a bad person, I wasn’t mean . . . I just was not a person you’d want to be around. I was never in a good mood.
One of the things I found out . . . I didn’t laugh. I probably hadn’t laughed for real in like 10 years. The last time I found myself happy was when my kids were born. After I turned 35, from the surgeries to the anxieties, if I laughed it was only because I had too much anxiety medication and too much to drink. So I was just a person . . . I didn’t want to be around myself.
The first week I was in rehab . . . there was this kid in there. And he was trying to explain to the counselors what he was like when he got there. And he described it perfectly. He said, “You know, I built this box around me, and I hated everybody in it . . . and the only person in it was me.”
The bottom line is the only thing that really kept me from movin’ off and never bein’ seen again was my family, my kids. You look at your kids every day and you go, “I’ve gotta get through this for them. If nothing else, I’ve gotta get through this for them.” So I just kept fightin’ and fightin’ and fightin’.
The thing that I had to learn in rehab, ‘cause I’m a very independent person, is raisin’ your hand and askin’ for help is so easy to do. And that’s one of the hardest things for most people to do when they’ve got problems, askin’ for help.
I was askin’ for help by goin’ to doctors. I spent probably $200,000 on doctors, tryin’ to figure out what was givin’ me anxiety. And I would quite drinkin’ for two months at a time. It still didn’t help. What I needed was to go somewhere with professional help. Because my problem got to me psychologically . . . that’s what panic disorders do. They get to you psychologically so bad that you have to go get help. My life was just miserable. When you wake up every day feelin’ like you’re gonna die sometime during the day, and you can’t do a thing about it—except maybe take a drink or a pill—that’s just miserable.
CW
“Drunkard’s Prayer” . . . great lyrics—When I get drunk and talk to God/I say a prayer for all the things I’m not—does that ring true for you?
JMM
Oh, absolutely. I cut that song for a reason. It was before I went into rehab. I listened to it probably 100 times before I cut it because I was like, “Man, this is me so much.”
CW
The lines . . . I wish I could go to church/but I’m too ashamed of me/I hate the fact that it takes a bottle to get me to my knees. Are you somebody who, more now than before, takes the time to pray?
JMM
Oh yeah. I learned to start prayin’ again in rehab. You find out that you need a higher power in your life to help get through things. Like I said, I’m a very independent person. I grew up in church, so I didn’t have a problem believin’ in God, but I certainly had a problem askin’ for help. Just a simple prayer to say “I’m thankful for being alive today.” It’s so hard for people to do that. I think they’re scare of a higher power . . . scared of what they don’t know. You feel helpless sometimes to have to ask for help.
Rehab doesn’t preach that you’ve gotta go to church every Sunday at 12 o’clock. But you’ve gotta find a higher power to get you through your ordeal. ‘Cause it’s so bad that you’re in here now.
The first thing I did when I came home was grab my wife and kids and we went to church. I was like, “We’re goin’ to church together Sunday.” But it helps to have something to go to and Someone to help keep me from fallin’ off the cliff again. I have the tools to do that now.
CW
“All in a Day” is another great song. It talks about not being able to rewind your life. I assume if you could do that, you’d like to change some things?
JMM
Yeah, absolutely. I wouldn’t be gettin’ up singing the national anthem. I would’ve gone into rehab a lot earlier than I did. There’s just a ton of things I would’ve done different, now that I have the knowledge.
I didn’t have it back then, but now all I can do is try to apply what I know and try to make up for things. I’ve done a lot of great things in my life, charity-wise, music-wise. I believe in treating other people like I want to be treated. I go out of my way to treat people better than I expect to be treated. And anybody who’s ever worked for me will tell you that’s the way I am. I don’t have a mean streak in my body. Unfortunately, I can sit here and rattle off a thousand great things I’ve done for people and charities and things like that, but the thing that people may remember the most—including me—is that one stupid thing that you did. It just seems to erase all the other stuff.
CW
In “Brothers till the End,” it’s cool that you were able to write about your mom playing drums. Did she use switches on you boys when you made her mad?
JMM
Yeah, she did. My mom spanked us when we needed to be spanked. And she didn’t hold back any. She worked every day, 8 to 10 hours a day, six days a week. And when she came home, she expected to have the house clean, dishes washed and beds made. And I got spanked a couple times for not gettin’ that done. And boys will be boys. Eddie and I, every once and a while we’d step over the line and do somethin’ stupid. And she’d have us take our belts off or we’d go out and grab a switch. And it was like, “You all go and get a switch, and if you get one too small, I’m gonna go out and get the one I want.”
But she knew she had a couple of boys . . and boys can get out of hand from time to time. I’ve probably needed a spankin’ for the last 20 years of my career! Unlike today, you went straight out of high school and spent 7, 8, 10 years in a nightclub, honin’ your skills and hoping you get a record deal. Now they have TV and things like that, but you still have to deliver. I couldn’t imagine bein’ thrust into 35,000,000 people like on American Idol and havin’ to perform, and the scrutiny. I would just faint, I think.
And one of the things growin’ up, we grew up around a lot of musicians and drinkin’ . . . right into honky-tonks, me and Eddie went. So, when we got out on the road, it was whiskey, beer and balls to the walls. And that was fun and everything. But I guess that’s more old school nowadays. The labels now probably like it a little better having somebody who didn’t go right out of high school into honky-tonks. We’ve got some baggage! And some stories.
CW
You call him Edrow in the song. Do you call him that?
JMM
That’s what I call him, Edrow. Dad always called him Edweirdo. People always ask me, “So, how did you and your brother get into the business?” I’m like, “Well, my mom and dad played music. My dad played lead guitar and sang and my mom played drums.” And they go, “Your mom played drums?”
Dad made the mistake one day, when a drummer quit, she brought up the idea of maybe her playin’ drums. And he looked at her and said, “Women don’t play drums.” And we had a set of drums the next day in our living room. I remember as a little bitty kid, Mom beatin’ on them things. ‘Course as we got older, that just made her stronger when she was spankin’ us!
I remember me and Eddie seein’ her throw sticks at Dad on stage when he’d do something to make her mad. But she played the drums, he played guitar. We played on weekends and had a family band. We were around musicians our whole life. We grew up in it. We know nothin’ else.
CW
I love “With My Shirt On.”
JMM
That’s more of my weird sense of humor. I gained some weight without havin’ my legs under me there for a while. For the last 7 years or so, I’ve not been able to get out and exercise and golf with the injuries that I’ve had. And I packed on about 30 lbs. That belly sticks out a lot farther under that shirt than it used to. And I’m embarrassed by it! [he chuckles]. I look in the mirror and it’s like, “Dadgum, John, you’re eatin’ good!” And I try like everybody else. When you get 40 years old, it comes off so slow. I’m back on a diet now. This year’s the first year I feel healthy enough to work out a little bit. I play golf . . . and I don’t hurt afterwards. I feel like I now have the ability to lose some of that weight and get back into shape again. That song, I just laugh when I hear it. I play it during the shows. It’s one for us guys out there.
CW
Is life looking good to you now?
JMM
Yeah, it is. I’m still facing the same stresses. And I’ve got an uphill battle, have to win over a lot of people again to show ‘em that I’m takin’ my life and my career seriously—and that I’ve got control of it again. There’s gonna be some people that’s gonna say, “Hey, we’ll give you another chance.” And there’ll be some people who’ll say, “No, you had your chance. You’re down and I’m gonna kick you.” But the thing about it is, I grew up in trailer parks, so I’m used to that. We moved around a lot and we never had much. I got toughened up a long time ago, for the ups and downs of life. So right now it’s on an upswing for me.

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