LIFE'S STILL A DANCE
Despite a series of near disasters, John Michael Montgomery proves that career longevity is no accident with his latest comeback hit, "Letters From Home"
John Michael Montgomery reflexively held out his hand to break his fall as he slipped on the front porch of his Kentucky home. As soon as his palm hit the ground, he felt a surge of pain. Like anyone else, his first thought was, "Oh no!" Unlike most people, his second thought was, "Not again!"
No one uses the show business maxim "break a leg" around John Michael anymore. The phrase means good luck for others, but he's endured too many surgeries for fractured legs and spent too much time hobbling about on crutches for anyone to joke about broken bones around him.
So, earlier this year, when he buckled in pain after landing on the porch, he figured he'd done it again. Just as his career seemed to be regaining momentum, an accident threatened to stall him - just as it had during a resurgence four years earlier on the strength of the memorable hit single, "The Little Girl."
But this time, to his surprise, nothing cracked. He did pull some ligaments in his wrist. It hurt, but the damage would heal.
"I thought, 'Man, I finally got some luck - this time it's only a sprain!' " John Michael says with a hearty laugh. "It wasn't a break. It's a move in the right direction. So I thought, 'Wow, maybe this is a sign that things are finally turning around for me.' "
Indeed, they are. Staging yet another comeback with yet another heart-tugging hit, "Letters From Home," John Michael yet again finds himself enjoying a wave of rising success. "It seems like I've got some momentum back again," he beams. "Hopefully this song will let everyone know that I'm far from being done. I feel fortunate to still have a career."
He experienced a similar surge in 2000, when "The Little Girl" became his first No. 1 song in five years. The touching song told of a young child who survived her parents' murder/suicide through divine intervention. It skyrocketed up the charts and put John Michael back in the spotlight.
But as success lifted him, an accident brought him back down. While working on his farm, he fell and suffered multiple fractures of his lower right leg. The injury required surgery, and the complexity and severity of the breaks required a long recovery.
Impatient, John Michael began walking on the leg sooner than doctors had advised. To his great regret, he broke it again in another fall. "I had to have two surgeries in four months," he says. "I spent more than six months on crutches. From then on, it seemed, every time I fell, something broke. I started telling people to just call me Humpty Dumpty, the artist formerly known as John Michael."
After he put the crutches in storage, he was dealt another setback. His doctor diagnosed him with tonsillitis and recommended that his tonsils be removed. Some advisers suggested John Michael put off the surgery or get a second opinion, for they feared the operation might permanently alter or harm the singer's voice.
"I told everyone that I sing with my vocal chords, not my tonsils," he says now, laughing at the memory. "Everyone was so scared about that. But, I tell you, it hurt. I was in a lot of pain over it, and I kept having this recurring soreness in my throat. I couldn't live with it. I've always put my health before my career - what good am I if I'm not healthy? So I had the surgery done. Of course, that kept me out of the business for a while longer."
In 2003, another ailment struck. "I had a condition in my left hip where blood circulation started decreasing," he says. "Because of that, the bone in my leg started hurting to where I couldn't hardly lift my leg up. So they had to go in there and drill a hole through the bone to get the blood circulation going. I had to stay on crutches all winter for that. But now that's fine. I'm back playing golf."
The injuries had one bright spot - they forced John Michael off the road and gave him an enormous amount of time with his wife, Crystal, and their children, 7-year-old Madison and 5-year-old Walker. "They're at that age where they're so much fun, but they're also little stinkers, picking on each other all the time," says the proud papa. "One of them is as independent as can be, the other as dependent as can be."
He's lived in a 3,000-square-foot home in rural Kentucky not far from Lexington since marrying Crystal in 1996. The singer decided to stay in Kentucky, his home since birth, because he was determined to raise his family in the country instead of in the city.
He acknowledges that moving to Nashville could have helped his career, but he did what he thought best for his family. "There's nothing more important to me than my wife and children and our home," he says. "Once you have children, there's nothing else in the world that compares to that. It completely changes everything. All of a sudden you don't ask yourself what your purpose in the world is."
Even with all his injuries and career struggles, John Michael doesn't regret the last few years he's spent at home. But he's also glad that, this time, an accident at home didn't cause more damage - especially because his career once again is on the upswing thanks to a sensitive story song, "Letters From Home."
"In this business, when you go on a four-year drought, it's easy for everyone to give up on you," the singer says. "And once you see people turning away, it's easy to give up on yourself, too. If people don't hear much from you, they think you're over with."
But John Michael knew what it would take to revive his career - one great song. He'd already experienced how a powerful tune can turn a career around when "The Little Girl" sped to the top.
" 'The Little Girl' was such a beautiful story," John Michael says. "When we recorded it, I told everyone that I wanted to keep it as simple as possible. Nobody needed to mess with that song. We needed to focus on the story, and I needed to tell it as compellingly and with as much conviction as I could. The music just needed to hold up the vocals. I didn't want to get caught up in technology or doing anything fancy. The lyrics were what mattered."
In preparing to make his new album, John Michael searched high and low to find another song with such a powerful narrative. As soon as he heard "Letters From Home," about parents and a spouse writing to a soldier in a war zone, he knew he'd found another winner.
"It grabbed me from the first line, as soon as I heard that opening, Dear Son, it's almost June ...," says John Michael. "I thought that was kind of 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!' "
John Michael knew on first listen that the song was for him. "Here's a song that I felt didn't really have to do with war, it has to do with people 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."
John Michael has always enjoyed stories with emotion and morals. Even his first hit, 1992's "Life's a Dance," presented a breezy slice of philosophy. But in the '90s he was just as famous for fun, upbeat songs like "Be My Baby Tonight" and "Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)," and for armswide- open love songs like "I Swear" and "I Love the Way You Love Me."
These days, experience and fatherhood have changed him, and a song needs to strike him as substantial and meaningful to capture his attention. "It's all about the lyrics now for me," he explains. "And I think the fans out there listen to the words most of all. I wasn't always like that, though. I'm a music guy. I play guitar. I've always been involved in the sound and the arrangements. Early in my career, I probably paid more attention to the music and the energy of a song than what it said."
"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."
Meanwhile, he's ready to enjoy another peak in his long career - hopefully without the need for crutches or casts. "I sometimes think I've been unlucky, but if I step back, I know that's not true," he says. "I've been blessed with the best of both worlds. When I started out, I was single and young and had lots of hit records.
"Now I'm happily married, I've got a great family, and I'm still on the radio and playing shows," he says. " Longevity was always my main goal."
-- Story by Michael McCall