On Friday, Sept. 15, Montgomery Gentry released a new song called “Better Me.” It’s a somber, low-key ballad about becoming a better person, largely abandoning the band’s anthemic singalong rock songs. And though it didn’t start as a bittersweet tribute, tragic circumstances gave it a new meaning.
There, 1,500 family, friends and fans gathered to celebrate Gentry’s life. Little Big Town, Vince Gill, Trace Adkins, Charlie Daniels and more honored the late singer. And after the last mourner left, the question remains for Eddie Montgomery: now what?
With a new album on the way, Montgomery Gentry could live on, or it could remain there on the hallowed stage of the Opry. But either way, the duo’s lasting impact won’t soon fade.
Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry actually first made music together as Early Tymz, a trio with Montgomery’s younger brother John Michael Montgomery. After the younger Montgomery left to pursue a successful solo career, Eddie tried to do the same.
But Eddie’s affinity for southern rock didn’t quite yet fit into the 1990s country craze, which again favored a pop crossover sound. So he reunited with Troy Gentry and formed Deuce, which they eventually renamed to Montgomery Gentry.
The Kentucky boys spearheaded a “Kentucky country” renaissance, blending rock n’ roll and outlaw country with just a hint of that smooth pedal steel. They took Nashville by storm and struck pay dirt with blue collar, singalong anthems championing the types of themes you’d expect from Kentucky boys. The Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. Celebrating where you’re from. Not taking yourself too seriously, but still being proud. The kinds of themes that didn’t fill arenas, but packed clubs and midsize venues across the country with loyalists and long-time fans.
Montgomery Gentry’s first single “Hillbilly Shoes” actually hit the radio before it even went out. Fans hungry for a new male duo to take the shoes of Brooks & Dunn ate up the tune — so much so, that radio programmers were even bootlegging the song to play on air.
One radio programmer told Billboard at the time, “I couldn’t be any more excited about these guys. I think the format is in desperate need of some fun and some attitude.” Another called them “aggressive,” “raw,” “raucous” and “gritty.” That type of buzz worked wonders for the group. The label even moved the record release up an entire month to meet demand.
Interestingly enough, none of the debut album’s five singles hit No. 1 on the charts. But they didn’t have to. Montgomery Gentry sold more than a million units of that first record. And then they pulled off a major upset.
At the 2000 Country Music Association Awards, they won the Vocal Duo of the Year award, unseating Brooks & Dunn, who had won it an astounding eight times in a row prior. They repeated the feat at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
But despite their early success, Montgomery Gentry is more defined by staying relentlessly themselves, even through fads and trends. The country duo never really recaptured that initial buzz in terms of awards and radio love. But they took their fans with them everywhere. And their fans didn’t care the pair didn’t even notch their first No. 1 single on radio until their fourth album, “If You Ever Stopped Loving Me” off 2004’s You Do Your Thing.
In a lot of ways, the pair felt impervious to the ever-changing winds of the industry. They’ve floated in and out of record contracts. And even when the industry nearly tanked with illegal downloading, they kept selling records to their loyal following.
At the heart of every record, Montgomery Gentry focused on glorifying the everyday. What some may seem as mundane and covered in dust, they heralded as the mana of life. Songs like “My Town,” “Where I Come From” and “Folks Like Us” prove it. You can expect most songs to hit plenty of cliches. They probably all contain the same chords and are within a few beats of being the same tempo.
But dammit if they aren’t catchy, and dammit if their fans don’t love it. Montgomery’s earthy baritone and Gentry’s complementary tenor seemed to always hit the right notes.
The pair worked closely with Colt Ford’s label Average Joes Entertainment at the beginning of the bro country fad. It makes a lot of sense, because Ford is a great example of somebody who knows exactly who his fans are and doesn’t try to do anything but stick by them. Montgomery Gentry certainly laid the foundation for many of the southern rock-inspired country groups of today, including the Cadillac Three, A Thousand Horses and Brantley Gilbert (who also works closely with Ford).
With a new album still slated for 2018, Montgomery Gentry’s future is anything but certain, in both ways. Those who just assume the duo is over greatly underestimate the lifespan on the music they made together. And just how timeless it is to their audience.
But that doesn’t mean Eddie wants to forge on with a new singing partner. Nor does it mean he wants to go on as a solo country singer. Only time will tell the direction he wants to take his career. But the band and its nearly 20 years of music will live on in the hearts and minds of endearing fans.