SANTA ANA — There he was at the Crazy Horse on Monday, a good-lookin' young dude from Kentucky, giving his country music a rock 'n' roll jolt and drawing screams from the ladies in the audience.
Put down your weapons--it wasn't Billy Ray Cyrus.
Actually, when all the dust finally clears, John Michael Montgomery should easily eclipse Achy Breaky Billy as their native state's true contribution to '90s country music.
In a much quieter way, Montgomery has become country's rookie of the year for this season, with a huge-selling debut album, "Life's a Dance," and a couple of big hit singles.
Opening a two-night stand at the Crazy Horse, Montgomery turned in an inconclusive performance, coming off as a likable, often-engaging figure whose broad tastes and palpable enthusiasm helped compensate for a shortage of artistic depth and ambition.
The set included generic modern country, a taste of bluesy folk and a Merle Haggard classic. With "Cotton-Eyed Joe," Montgomery dug up bluegrass roots, clustering around the mike with two bandmates on some tight, auctioneer-voiced harmonies. He encored with some Western swing and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Of course, range doesn't equal vision, and overall Montgomery seemed more capable than inspired. But his voice is deep and powerful, with an easy naturalism and a touch of nuance, and like all young country singers, he deserves a chance to emerge from the shadows of Hank, George and Merle before the final verdict is returned.
He engaged in some awkward stage patter and appeared vastly more at ease when he settled back into the embrace of his five-piece band and had a good old time of it, as he's been doing in Lexington-area clubs for more than a decade.
In that context, he came off as an authoritative performer--charged by the beat, enjoying the chance to tear off some guitar solos himself. He and his musicians generated a winning playful quality that accounted for much of his rapport with the audience.
Unfortunately, Montgomery had his first No. 1 hit with a formulaic ballad, "I Love the Way You Love Me," and his new single, "I Swear," which he introduced Monday, is in the same mold. These musical romance novels might be good business, but on stage they forced Montgomery into an uncomfortable approximation of Julio Iglesias.
Well, better that than Billy Ray.