Twang Peaks : John Michael Montgomery's Ballads Send the Ladies' Hearts Soaring

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With his rugged good looks and sturdy 6-foot-1 frame, John Michael Montgomery is to country music what Michael Bolton is to mainstream pop. He's a heartthrob who has a way of making women swoon with his poignant, romantic ballads.

And like Bolton, Montgomery--who performs at the Pond of Anaheim on Sunday night--has had to deal with detractors who have suggested that's he's more "himbo" than a singer worthy of serious artistic consideration. It's a view that the 31-year-old Kentuckian has heard since he released "Life's a Dance," his 1992 double platinum debut album.

Montgomery acknowledges that image is an important aspect of any entertainer's popular appeal. But he argues that in music, sex appeal also must be accompanied by talent if a performer is to achieve lasting success.

"Everybody has an image to sell, whether it's Arnold Schwarzenegger with his muscles or a guy with ponytails sticking out all over his head," Montgomery said during a recent phone interview. "If my image is of the hunk, with the dimples and the cowboy hat, it's no different than any singer or actor who portrays an image. I love to wear cowboy hats and jeans. . . . Hell, it wasn't my fault I was born with dimples.

"If you fit the image of what you're doing and you sell, you're going to have some people who say, 'He ain't for real. He's selling those albums because of the dimples and the cowboy hat.' That stuff doesn't bother me. I laugh at it and go on."

Montgomery can laugh all the way to the bank. Following "Life's a Dance," both his "Kickin' It Up" and "John Michael Montgomery" albums went quadruple platinum. His current "What I Do the Best" has been a top 10 fixture on the country album charts since its release in September.

Like many popular performers in his field, Montgomery found a large audience by bringing a strong pop element to his work. So traditionalists may be surprised to find that "What I Do the Best" contains several old-fashioned country numbers. The frisky "Ain't Got Nothing on Us" and the plaintive title song are rawer and twangier than what often passes for country music today.

"I wasn't hearing a lot of traditional stuff on the radio," he says, explaining his decision to record a few rustic country tracks. "I felt like maybe traditional country wasn't being given its piece of the pie that it deserved. I put a couple on there because I could and it wouldn't hurt me none.

"Hey, you've got all these new artists coming out. The last thing you want them to think is that you can't put any traditional songs on your albums. [I want them to think] 'Hey, John Michael gets by with it and [radio programmers] still play his stuff and people still buy his albums.' "

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Although he is probably best known for his country-pop ballads such as the hits "I Swear" and "Friends," Montgomery says he grew up listening to a diverse menu of music that included rock 'n' roll, pop and traditional country. Surprisingly, he cites R&B; singer-songwriter Lionel Richie as one of his music idols.

Montgomery seems to be genetically inclined toward music. His TV repairman father sang country music in and around the Lexington, Ky., area. Older brother Eddie also performed publicly. Sister Becky now fronts her own country band in Cincinnati.

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The loquacious Montgomery was discovered by an Atlantic Records representative while singing in a Lexington club. At the time, he says, his dream was simply to put an album out on a major label. Montgomery--who projects a humble, down-home image--claims he never imagined that he would one day be racking up hit albums and singles. He has also won or has been nominated for numerous industry awards. (Last year he was nominated for three Grammy awards, including best country album for "John Michael Montgomery.")

The singer-guitarist seems fully conscious of the vicissitudes of the music business. The fact that he has been battling serious voice problems in recent years has undoubtedly helped to sharpen this awareness. In the fall of 1995 he underwent throat surgery after several years of singing in pain. He took seven months off last year in order to rest his voice. Montgomery says he can now perform comfortably. But he's not sure if his singing voice will ever be as strong as it used to be.

"Singing was pretty effortless before," he says. "It ain't that way anymore. I have to prove to people that I can sing, even though there are times I probably can't. Hopefully, in the first few months [of this year] my throat will get back into pretty good shape. There are times when you're frustrated and you want to quit. But I've never been a quitter. So I'm going to keep at it until basically it's not going to get any better and I either go with that or make [another] decision. But right now I'm really happy with the way my career is going. I guess it's just another challenge in life that I'll face."

In 1995, Montgomery performed 130 shows. This year he will play only 80 dates in an effort to preserve his voice and spend more time with his wife and their new baby. The Montgomerys live in a three-story farmhouse in Nicholasville, about eight miles south of Lexington.

"As much as I love music and I've dedicated myself to playing music, I'm also that dedicated to being a husband and father," says Montgomery. "That will come first before anything else because that's what I've chosen to do. Come hell or high water, I'm going to spend as much time watching my little girl grow up as I can."

* John Michael Montgomery, Rhett Akins and Ricochet perform Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Pond, 2695 Katella Ave., Anaheim. $25 and $37.50. (714) 704-2500.

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