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A HAT WITH LEGS

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In the beginning he was the Garth Brooks clone: There was the dimple, the hat, even an album title reminiscent of Brooks’ own megahit song ”The Dance.” Now that John Michael Montgomery’s first album, Life’s a Dance, has gone platinum and his shows are selling out, Nashville is rethinking that first take: He’s looking like a bona-fide hitmaker with staying power. And should he beat out Trisha Yearwood or Tracy Lawrence for the prestigious Horizon Award at the Country Music Association Awards on September 29, his bankability will skyrocket. ”I always wondered if there was something different enough about me to take my music to a mass level,” says Montgomery. What really sets the Kentuckian apart are his Southern-rock-tinged, furiously energized live shows. ”My dad taught me how to work a stage,” says Montgomery, 28, who grew up playing local fairs in his family’s Partridge Family-esque country band (with Mom on drums and Dad on vocals and lead guitar). ”He didn’t always have the greatest band in the world, or the greatest PA system, or even the greatest music, but he knew how to stand on a stage and give people their money’s worth.” Montgomery was discovered in 1990 headlining a small club in Lexington, & Ky., and displayed uncanny chutzpah right out of the gate. When he and producer Wyatt Easterling butted heads over the direction of Life’s, Montgomery left the studio and made a midnight call to Rick Blackburn, vice president and general manager of Atlantic/Nashville, to say he needed a different guy. ”I thought, ‘It might be the end of your career, calling Rick up in the middle of the night,”’ admits Montgomery, ”but I didn’t want to put out something I felt wasn’t me.” The payoff was a new producer, Doug Johnson, who brought in all three of the album’s hits-the title song, ”I Love the Way You Love Me,” and ”Beer and Bones.” ”My dad always wanted to be a solo act, but those dreams disappeared as he got older,” says Montgomery. ”So my success is his, too. It means he didn’t waste all those years playing honky-tonks.”

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