Montgomery Gentry’s heritage stretches back to 1999 when they released their debut album, ‘Tattoos and Scars’ so they date from a time before Country music splintered and diversified, from a time before Taylor Swift and Big Machine and from a time when men were men and woman were redemptive angels who kept the home-fires burning. It is no surprise, then, that on eighth album, ‘Here’s to You’ they sometimes seem caught between two worlds, between two versions of Country music – the one that lies way deep down in their heart and the one they know they should embrace if they ever want to make it back into the top ten, something that has eluded them since 2011.
The elephant in the room, however, is that ‘Here’s to You’ will be Montgomery Gentry’s final album, coming, as it does, about sixth months after Troy Gentry was tragically killed in a helicopter crash just two days after completing the recording sessions for what would be this album. That accident casts a tragic pall over the album and possibly brings to the fore certain lines or lyrics that sound almost prophetic when put into the context of what happened. In ‘Drive on Home’, for example, Gentry sings about worrying about ‘all the things I can’t control’ and goes onto the hope that ‘I pray to God it all works out’ during a reflective, grown up song about a man doing his best to provide for his family.
However, it is important, I feel, to review ‘Here’s to You’ as an album in its own right and not as an epitaph or a eulogy to the band. Given the 90’s nature of their genesis Montgomery Gentry are always going to have more in common with the likes of Brooks & Dunn, Big & Rich and maybe even also artists like Phil Vassar than they have with many of the artists in the Country charts right now. They have earned a solid fan base over the years through touring in the right places at the right times of the year but, whilst there is evidence of growth, modernisation and experimentation on ‘Here’s to You’ the sound of Montgomery Gentry is of a Country world slipping away, of a genre almost gone now – that type of 90’s Country guitar led rock that will clearly sell concert tickets throughout the south at State Fairs and smaller shows but might not necessarily shift downloads or cause streaming numbers to be anything but average. They sing about a world that seems slightly anachronistic now, a world I am sure exists in the deeper Southern markets, but one that seems slightly unsophisticated to many in 2018 in these post-Trump, LGBT, snowflake tinged days.
Album opener, ‘Shotgun Wedding’ is a prime example of that. It shares a lineage with Montgomery Gentry’s very first song, ‘Hillbilly Shoes’ from 1999, beginning as it does, with a line about Sammy and Katie who went a little too far in the ‘Johnson’ grass out behind the barn. The boy ends up fleeing on his wedding day, leaving the girl portrayed as a passive victim in this whole tale. This is not the only place on the album that women are rendered almost powerless. ‘Needing a Beer’ begins with the line, ‘Here’s to the daddy’s who drive them big old trucks, doin’ what they got to fill their baby’s bellies up. Here’s to the mommas who hold the fort down while they’re gone, making the miles all worthwhile when they get back home.’ I’m sure there are many folks, not just in the American south, who have family lives that reflect this way of living but it feels somewhat of an anachronistic cause for celebration in 2018.
‘Feet Back on the Ground’ – a lush, well produced ballad is all about re-connecting with ‘momma’. About going home and grounding yourself in reality and taking a break from the hectic nature of the modern world, but again, does nothing for the woman in the tale than portray her as some sort of redemptive device, there just to bring the man back onto the straight and narrow again. Album closer, ‘All Hell Broke Loose’, another quite reflective song, sees Eddie Montgomery sing, ‘I’ve got a wild side forged by the wildfires of hell…………..the devil in me fell in love with the angel in you’. It seems to be only the redemptive power of the woman in this song that keeps the man on the straight and narrow but again, places the woman in a sort of powerless situation where her only worth is to replenish and refresh the man in her life so he can go about his business, whether that be his work or his play.
There are a few songs on ‘Here’s to You’ all about play. ‘Get Down South’ is a raucous drinking song that references all the correct southern clichés like moonshine, paper cups, rednecks and coke & crown. After an evening’s drinking with the boys the narrator decides it then becomes time to ‘find a girl and say howdy’. It’s a fun song but nothing that hasn’t been produced a thousand times before in the last twenty years. ‘Drink Along Song’ is better, funkier and more fun to sing-along to. It breaks the 4th wall in its chorus by actually telling you it is a drink along song and I can imagine this one will become a live favourite.
Where ‘Here’s to You’ gets good is when Montgomery Gentry open up a little and let us inside their world, when they stop singing about southern clichés and really get in touch with some real emotions. ‘Better Me’ is a simply outstanding song. Written by Josh Hoge, Jamie Moore and Randy Montana it sees Troy Gentry in thoughtful, lyrically meaningful mode. If there is one song that stands as a tribute to him from now on it should be this one. He sings with passion about trying to become a better person and it resonates with both his age and experience in life, making his accident seem all the more tragic in retrospect. ‘Whatcha’ Say We Don’t’ is also a cracking song. Gentry’s urgent vocals about not breaking up with someone are set over an 80’s style rock-guitar sound in perfect pop/country fashion – this one would make a great single and it also does something more meaningful lyrically than just southern clichés and male bravado. Eddie Montgomery’s best song is the dark ‘King of the World’. On the surface ‘….World’ is a simple song, again about re-connecting with something, as much of this album seems to be about. This time it is the outside world, fishing, pretty girls and a Tylenol buzz – yet it is not the lyrics that impress with this one it is the instrumentation. A stripped back guitar sound and darker melody make the song stand out sonically amongst a number of similar sounding songs. This is another one that I think would work well live.
Kudos, too, must go to Montgomery Gentry’s attempt at modernising the ‘long live the USA’ type sentiment on ‘That’s the Thing About America’. Here we see the traditional glorification of America, of America: the land of the free and the home of the brave, re-worked and remodelled around a family table. The traditional arguments of the left and the right wings are played out by the members of the family and then a big, catchy rock-vocal chorus tells us all that it’s ok to disagree, and ‘that’s the thing about America’. The song is equal parts simplistic and yet genius too. It will resonate amongst its core demographic and will definitely get hands in the air during any live concert airings.
‘Here’s to You’ is a confusing album. It’s hard to listen to in isolation as a piece of music because of Troy Gentry’s passing. There are times when you can physically hear the guys working hard to modernise and reflect on a rapidly changing world and their own place in it. It is an excellently produced album with lush sound and some excellent Country/Rock guitars which will sound awesome in a live setting but it essentially comes from a place long gone now. The times, they have a-changed and much of what the guys sing about seems out of kilter a little with the world in 2018. Maybe it shouldn’t be – the theme of this album is one of re-connection and of reflection – there’s nothing wrong with that, right? But set against other releases this year, like LanCo and Caitlyn Smith’s excellent ‘Starfire’ album, ‘Here’s to You’ seems somewhat archaic, like a museum piece: something to be observed and to be analysed so as to give is a clue about a civilisation long passed as we continually drive towards an increasingly impersonal and technologically dominated future. Perhaps we should all listen to what Montgomery Gentry are trying to tell us before it is all too late and women enter the workplace and Skynet takes over?
Twitter – @rockjames