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Ten years after his first hit, John Michael Montgomery begins chapter two with renewed passion

Story by David Scarlett

I listened to Bob Kingsley's countdown every weekend back when I was in the clubs," recalls John Michael Montgomery about a national radio program that had his full attention back in the late '80s.

"And all I wanted was to hear him say my name. I'd think, 'If I can just hear Bob Kingsley say, 'We have a newcomer at No. 1 this week, John Michael Montgomery.'

"And finally, he did."

That tune, "I Love The Way You Love Me," topped the charts on May 15, 1993, and came on the heels of John Michael's first hit, 1992's "Life's A Dance." An amazing string of hits followed that included "I Swear," "Sold," and "The Little Girl." Sold-out shows, multiplatinum albums and a mantel full of awards underscore John Michael's success. But a decade after his first hit, the most important thing to him is that he's still making music.

"Back in '93 and '94," he declares, "people were asking me about my goals in music. And I kept tellin' 'em, 'I want to have some longevity in this business. I'm in it for the long haul.' "

Now, with the recent release of Pictures - his eighth album - John Michael's furthering his career longevity. The CD's first hit, "'Til Nothing Comes Between Us," is climbing into the Top 20, and he's already looking forward to the release of the likely next single, "Country Thang," in the spring.

Fully recovered from a 2000 broken leg injured when he stepped in an iced-over groundhog hole while hunting on his Kentucky property, John Michael also survived his former record company's collapse last year. He's now more fired up than he's been in a long time - about the album, new label and prospects for new hits.

"I always strive for the commercial success," he declares. "The way I look at it, if I don't make hit records, then I don't have a job, you know?"

It's a job the Kentucky native has loved since his first public performance.

"From the time I stepped onstage at 14 and sang my first song in front of a crowd, I've loved it," he declares. "I made 25 bucks that night, but the feelin' I got out of those people applauding for me was like, 'Wow! They like me.' "

That fan appreciation has sustained John Michael during rare occasions when he's wondered if time on the road away from his family - wife Crystal, daughter Madison and son Walker - was worth it.

"It's hard to explain," he says. "When I get down on myself or the business or just get tired and ask, 'Do I really want to tour this year?' it's the fans who let me know they're wanting to hear more music from me.

"And this has been the best touring season I've had in years. We've had sold-out shows, and it's like, 'Why would I ever want to quit doin' this?' If they want to come see me, I just need to get my butt on the bus and go tour."

After all, touring is one of the big reasons the former farm boy is still going strong. "There's no feeling like it," he grins. "I wish I could find a genie to blink her eyes and plop me right onstage. And then blink and plop me right back on my tractor ... without the bus ride in between! I'd do 500 shows a year!"

Along with his 900-acre Kentucky farm and the other rewards it's earned, John Michael's career has enabled him to meet people he'd never have met any other way - like the current occupant of the White House.

"I was at a private fundraiser," he recalls, "and President Bush was still the governor of Texas at the time. I was very impressed with his authenticity and his sincerity. He was a gentleman and just very, very nice - a pleasure to talk to. It's not every day you get to hang out with the future president!"

Sports fan John Michael also counts singing the national anthem at a Chicago Bulls game during Michael Jordan's last season as a career highlight. And, a true golf fanatic, he's been able to hang out with his buddy Fuzzy Zoeller, the resident jokester on the PGA Tour.

"Fuzzy was the celebrity host for the Children's Miracle Network tournament in Lexington," declares John Michael. "And he is just a blast to be around. But all of his kidding is good-natured - he's got a big heart."

John Michael's also grooming a couple of future golf partners.

"I've got a practice green off my office," he smiles. "And I get my kids out there, and we take turns hittin' balls to that little green. Madison's 6 and Walker's 3 - and by the time they're 10 or 12, I'm hoping they can hit the ball around with Daddy pretty good."

John Michael's kids make the most of every moment he has with them, whether it's an annual trip to Disney World or sharing the breakfast he likes to cook for them when he's home. But it's a different story when dad has to hit the road.

"They want daddy to be so successful at singing," declares John Michael. "And they like to come out on the road from time to time and watch me sing. But they don't like me to go on the road and leave 'em. It's a tough thing for 'em.

"But my family has never, ever once tried to make it hard on me to have a career and have a family. We just make it work."

John Michael hopes to combine family with business next year with a possible tour with older brother Eddie and Troy Gentry of Montgomery Gentry.

"I'd love for me and Eddie and Troy to get together and possibly do a little tour," proclaims John Michael. "Get an opening act to go in front of us. Maybe see if anybody's interested in doing about 20 concerts and having some fun. So we're gonna delve into that."

The brothers have both come a long way since their early days working on the farm in Kentucky. When John Michael looks back on the achievements of his career, one highlight keeps coming back to his mind.

"I've said throughout my career," he proclaims, "I'm not always going to sell five million records the way a couple of my early albums did. But after the smoke clears, I want to still be standin'.

"And I am."