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A Full Tank After Struggling For Years, John Michael Montgomery Is Now Among Country’s Elite

On his latest album, John Michael Montgomery sings about his dirt-poor days in 1990 while playing in honky-tonks with his brother.

The Kentuckian, who will perform Friday at the Spokane Arena, says “A Few Cents Short” is also the song that launched his career.

“We didn’t have a penny in our pockets and we were driving this old Ford Escort I paid $400 for,” Montgomery recalled last year.

“One time it was about to run out of gas, and we were broke.” He told his brother Eddie that there was at least a couple dollars in change on the floorboards.

“The change we found was nasty because it had been on the floor so long, down there with all the burgers, fries and ketchup. We were too embarrassed to take the change in the bank, so we went inside and got the little money rolls and rolled the money up ourselves.”

They ended up with enough money to get two bucks in gas and a couple of burgers and drinks.

“I looked at (Eddie) and I said, ‘You know, I need to write a song about that.’ It just started flowing out of me, and that song is how I got my record deal.”

The song finally made it onto Montgomery’s fourth album, 1996’s “What I Do Best.” The release has already spawned two No. 1 singles, “Friends” and “I Miss You A Little,” plus the current rising hit, “How Was I To Know.”

He jumped into the national spotlight in 1993 with the hit singles “Life’s A Dance,” “I Love The Way You Love Me” and “I Swear.”

And now, with three multiplatinum albums under his belt and his latest, “What I Do Best,” also selling well, Montgomery can afford better wheels and plenty of gas. The 32-year-old lives on a 500-acre farm outside Lexington, Ky., with his wife, Crystal Michelle, and their 1-year-old daughter, Madison Caroline. Montgomery stayed away from touring during most of 1996 to be with his new family (he and Crystal wed in January of that year) and to work on his latest album.

“I took the time off to enjoy the process of making an album, I wanted to share the experience of having a new baby (Madison was born that August) and everything has worked out extremely well,” he said. “I like the place my life is in right now.”

On “What I Do Best,” Montgomery shifts from good-time tunes to traditional country.

“My past albums had a lot more fun or funnier material in them,” he said. “I think this album kind of helped me break away from that mode a little bit. …

“I believe that sometimes life can be a pendulum. It circles around, and traditional country always comes back.”

The album also contains Montgomery’s first composition since “A Few Cents Short.” “I Miss You A Little,” which he co-wrote with two others, is a tribute to his father, Harold, a country musician who died in 1994.

As a teenager, John Michael played with his father in the road houses and honky-tonks throughout the Appalachians. His mother, Carol, joined them on weekends.

“The music was always there for us,” he recalled. “We grew up in a little old house with a tin roof and a wood-burning stove. There was water and electricity - when we paid the bill. We all looked forward for (country music) to one day turn into something, like it has for me. It was a dream that my father had that I eventually grabbed hold of. And it ended up coming true for me.”

From 1993 to ‘95, he spent most of his time recording and touring. Since his first three albums sold a combined 10 million copies, he’d achieved his goal. And won a truckload of awards, including the 1995 Grammy for best country song for “I Swear” and the 1994 American Music Awards title for best new country artist.

Now that he’s married and a father, he’s ready to settle down a bit. But his music is always there. He’s been working on a new single to include on a greatest hits package, which is scheduled for release this fall.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CONCERT John Michael Montgomery will perform Friday at the Spokane Arena. Richocet and Kevin Sharp will open the show, which begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22.50, available at G&B Select-a-Seat outlets or call (800) 325-SEAT.

This sidebar appeared with the story: CONCERT John Michael Montgomery will perform Friday at the Spokane Arena. Richocet and Kevin Sharp will open the show, which begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22.50, available at G&B; Select-a-Seat outlets or call (800) 325-SEAT.

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