If the guys in Montgomery Gentry were inclined to speak Latin instead of Kentucky-ese — and trust us, they're not — then they might talk about their last year, in fancy-pants terms, as a true annus horibles. For Eddie Montgomery in particular, it was a series of setbacks.
"You find out that you have cancer, and then a little while later, you find out that you're getting a divorce," he recapped, during a visit to the Yahoo! Music studio. "So, yeah, it was all kind of wild. But it was great getting back in the studio, and it just pushed me even that much harder, I reckon."
The result of Montgomery's post-cancer rebound is Rebels on the Run, which they consider a return to their core sound. The pair stripped three of the songs from the album down to acoustic arrangements for this exclusive Ram Country performance.
If you expected an album that's deeply meditative in reflecting on the difficulties of the last year, you probably don't know Montgomery Gentry very well. If anything, it's a leap to the rowdier extreme — not as a result of anything personal, but as a reaction to jumping from their long-time major-label home, Sony, to an indie, Average Joe's.
"When we went in the studio, a couple of songs, I guess, reflected back on a little of it," says Troy Gentry. (He might be referring, in part, to "Empty," a poignant song about a divorce.) "But for the most part, when we go in the studio, we kind of leave personal issues behind and just want to focus on making a great product and a great album for our listeners out there. That's what Eddie and I have always tried to do—find those great American songs that everyday people out there can identify with. And I think because we had the time in between the (label) transitions, we found 11 of the best songs to represent America and Montgomery Gentry at this point in our career."
The title and cover imagery are on the bad-ass side, and so are a lot or even most of the numbers. You won't hear more than a couple of the sensitive ballads that came to compete with the duo's original Southern rock sound on their later records.
"I think that (shift) happened through our life over at Sony," Gentry says. "There were many cooks in the kitchen. I think that towards the latter part of our career at Sony, because there were so many people pitching songs and having their opinions thrown into the mix, we kind of strayed away from the true original Montgomery Gentry sound. But with having that time off and the freedom over at Average Joe's to go in and make a Montgomery Gentry record, we wanted to get back to the basic sound and structure of what we were founded on to begin with -- that everybody fell in love with 11 years ago when 'Hillbilly Shoes' came out off Tattoos and Scars. We made a conscious effort to get back to our roots."
If there's anything that's trademark MG, it's pride songs—whether they're finding pride in country, small town, the military, or self. "Where I Come From" and "Damn Right I Am"—two of the three songs they performed for our cameras—certainly fit well into that long tradition.
They don't think it's just a Southern thing. "With 'Where I Come From,' our single, I think no matter where anybody goes in this world, they always take a piece of their home and their heart with 'em, man," says Montgomery.
"Damn Right I Am" is more military-focused. "Of course when you're coming up through the honky-tonks and VFW clubs like we did, you see a lot of our American heroes, and you see the working class people coming in," Montgomery says. "I reckon we're kind of the voice. They want us to know what they go through and want us to sing about it. They'll tell us a story and say 'Hey, man, can you write a song about it?' or 'This is what happened to me,' and then we'll find those kinds of songs."
There's just slightly less pride in "My So-Called Life," which ponders the glass-half-full mixed emotions of a compromised but still celebrated existence.
"That song was kind of written about me, I guess," laughs Gentry. "They joke with me all the time, calling me Black Cloud, because depending on what's going on, my glass is either half empty or half full. So I thought that song was funny from the get-go, and that's one of the reasons I gravitated toward cutting it."
Another reason might have been how effectively the tune spotlights both Montgomery's and Gentry's individual voices. In other words, the glass half-Eddie, the glass half-Troy. Indeed, the Rebels on the Run album is full of actual, bona fide duets that contrast Eddie's famous gravel-iness with Troy's high parts, something they'd gotten away from.
Says Gentry, "I think back in the day, back on the first two or three records, I think we really made sure that the balance was there, splitting the songs up. I think in the last couple of records from Sony, we may have gotten away from that. Eddie would do a lot of songs on his own, and I was doing a lot of songs on my own, and then we had just a couple songs that we split up. Coming back to this project, Rebels on the Run, we realized that's what we do best in the studio: split songs and share the parts."
They had some help from producer Michael Knox, who's best known for working with another artist with attitude, Jason Aldean. It wasn't quite their first experience being in the studio with Knox — just their first credited one. Prior to the split with Sony, they recorded that never came out, and Knox had been brought in just for three tracks on that one. When they reconvened at the new label, they wanted to have Knox do the whole record.
Average Joe's, by the way, claims Colt Ford as co-owner. But "when we first started talking with Average Joe's, I wasn't aware that Colt was part owner in the record company," says Gentry. "We had just known him from being on the road, and Eddie's brother, John Michael, had met Colt, and we just became friends. It was ironic that when we started talking about a deal over there to find out that Colt was part of the structure."
With the demise of Brooks & Dunn as a pairing, Montgomery Gentry are one of the few true duos out there, particularly since some their main competition now in the "vocal duo" category, Sugarland, really isn't much of a duo at all, vocally speaking.
These two guys are quick to reiterate that they were not "put together" like Brooks & Dunn have always acknowledged they were.
"On the duos stuff, it's usually after artists come to Nashville, then they put duos together," says Montgomery. "See, we were friends before we were ever a duo -- lifetime friends, man, hanging out together. The title song of Rebels on the Run in particular reminds me of when me and him and John —or John Michael as everybody knows him, my brother -- all had drums tied on the top of the car and guitars and the amps in the back, and we'd drive and drive and set up and play a gig. And then we'd get paid at the end of the night, and we'd look and go, 'Man, we spent more money in gas getting here than we made!' But it was all about the music. And it still is."
With a little camaraderie thrown in…
"I'm just loving life," says Montgomery. "Life is short and I'm gonna live every second of it. I want to let everybody know — and we don't call anybody fans; we call 'em friends --and thank 'em for all the cards and letters and emails and prayers and all that stuff for us, man. I'm 100 percent cancer free and I don't even have to have any treatments or anything."
As for even closer friends: "Shoot, man, I can't think of anybody else I'd rather be hanging around, man," says Montgomery. "He's had my back ever since I found out and I called him."
"We've always had each other's backs," adds Gentry. The union, if we're allowed to use that word for guys from Kentucky, is strong.