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Montgomery takes it to the top


Truth be told, it wasn't a deep love of performing that drew John Michael Montgomery to music.

"One of the biggest reasons I started playing was so I could get the girls to pay attention to me," Mr. Montgomery said. "I found out that if I could play guitar and sing a little bit, then they'd pay a little more attention."

It worked. Today, attention certainly is what Mr. Montgomery's getting as his third album spends its ninth week in the No. 1 spot on the country music charts. Two singles from the record are in the Top 30.

"I really don't realize the popularity," Mr. Montgomery said. "I still live at home around all my friends, the people I grew up around. It keeps me down to earth."

Home is the Lexington, Ky., area, where Mr. Montgomery was born 30 years ago. He grew up the middle of three children whose performing parents took their kids along to their shows, " 'cause they couldn't afford a baby sitter."

The trips planted the country music seed in Mr. Montgomery, although it took a while to grow.

"I always thought country was kind of backward there for several years -- how they recorded and stuff," Mr. Montgomery said. "When they started mixing the drums, adding some real production, that was something that caught my attention. I thought it started sounding a lot cooler, being more progressive and aggressive."

Mr. Montgomery has no formal music training. He started playing with his mom and dad when he was about 15. He went out on his own a few years later, securing dates at any honky-tonk that would take him.

He eventually landed at a place called Austin City Saloon in Lexington. For four years, Mr. Montgomery led the club's house band, which often meant playing a lot of Top 40 songs.

Then, one night in 1992, "I got discovered."

An executive with Atlantic Records caught his saloon act and signed Mr. Montgomery to a record deal. His first album, "Life's a Dance," came out that November and spawned three Top 10 hits, including the No. 1 ballad "I Love the Way You Love Me."

A strong sophomore effort, "Kickin' It Up," proved even more successful, producing three No. 1 hits after making its debut in the top spot on Billboard magazine's country album charts.

The biggest song from that album, "I Swear," spent four weeks at No. 1 and earned Mr. Montgomery a Grammy Award for best country song, as well as trophies from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.

But it's his third album -- his self-titled release -- that Mr. Montgomery sees as pivotal.

"I thought the third one needed to be my establishment point," Mr. Montgomery said. "If I can get some hits off this one and it does as good as the other ones, I'll feel like I have established myself as an artist and just wasn't a fly-by-night guy."

The album was released in March and grabbed hold of the top spot on the charts a few weeks later.

Although the success has been sweet, what should have been the best year of Mr. Montgomery's life has been one of the toughest.

Mr. Montgomery's father, Harold, died last August from prostate cancer at the age of 52. The death came amid a grueling tour schedule for Mr. Montgomery and left a huge weight on the singer's shoulders.

The elder Montgomery, who never quite achieved his own musical success, left a mighty impression on his son.

"He was probably the biggest influence on my life," Mr. Montgomery said of his father. "He gave me a lot of talent, but he also gave me a lot of strength to be able to get through situations. Luckily, he gave me the ability to deal with life and its ups and downs."

Montgomery's music

To hear excerpts from John Michael Montgomery's album "John Michael Montgomery," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6129 after you hear the greeting.

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