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This Singer Makes No Bones About What He Wants

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Imagine a rookie ballplayer knocking on the team owner's door and complaining that the manager and coaches aren't playing him properly--and the owner had better do something about it. The response would probably be a ticket to the minor leagues.

But when rookie country singer John Michael Montgomery placed a midnight call to the head of Atlantic Records' Nashville division to complain about the progress of his debut album, he got what he wanted: a new producer.

Along with the new producer, Doug Johnson, came some new songs, including the gentle, reassuring "Life's a Dance" and the romantic ballad "I Love the Way You Love Me." Both became big country hits earlier this year, and a third, the honky-tonk "Beer and Bones," has just hit the charts.

The album--also called "Life's a Dance"--includes songs from the early, Wyatt Easterling-produced sessions alongside the Doug Johnson tracks, and it recently passed the million-sales mark. Montgomery, 28, is clearly this season's major newcomer in country music.

Where did the unproven singer get the nerve to take his case to the front office?

"You've got to respect the people in the business, but you can't let them intimidate you," Montgomery said during a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Denver.

"You've got to have enough confidence in yourself to say, 'Hey, I don't believe in this. I'm sorry, I don't like the damn thing, throw me off your label, but I'd rather not even be out there than be out there with something I don't like.'

"You get one chance to do something you love to do. If you don't make that first impression, it's hard to climb back up. You have to go with your guts. If I'm gonna put out a product I'm embarrassed about, I'd rather not put the sumbitch out."

Although this was his first recording, the 28-year-old Kentucky native has spent half his life playing music, which might account for some of his confidence. He started out as a member of his family's musical group, playing small functions in the Lexington area, then went on his own in his early 20s.

Now Montgomery is packing large clubs and opening arena shows for such country stars as Reba McEntire and Alabama. And he's also being pegged as this year's "hunk in a hat"--a designation that's all right with him.

"I mean, it's flattering. It's really neat that an old country boy that basically ain't built worth a damn--I'm bowlegged and I ain't got any muscles that I can brag about--and if somebody thinks I'm a hunk, that's amazing to me. Let the people enjoy it, you know.

"People say the looks are more important than the music. Well, I don't believe that. I believe if you put a guy out there that's God's gift to women and he can't sing a lick, he ain't gonna do nothin'."

A lot of people might say that the Billy Ray Cyrus phenomenon contradicts that view, but Montgomery combines diplomacy and loyalty when asked about the "Achy Breaky Heart" man.

"The way I feel about it, the guy's doin' his own thing," said Montgomery. "He's a Kentucky boy for one thing, so you know I'm behind him already. But he's apparently giving the people out there something that they want to listen to or they wouldn't have bought the stuff. OK, they like the way the boy looks. What's wrong with that?

"Personally, I think he's got talent. Maybe he's not a country singer, but I'm against bashing somebody just because maybe they ain't goin' with the program. As long as we keep stereotyping what a country singer's supposed to be, then we're gettin' back into the same old thing we had a few years ago when we wasn't sellin' no music."

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