July 26, 2011 at 11:33 am , by Ron Kelly
It’s rare when a new artist’s debut CD leaves you immediately counting down the days to his next. That being said, Randy Montana’s self-titled first album already has me staring down my calendar. You can pick out bits of his childhood influences (Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen) throughout his music, which definitely leans toward the rockier side of country. But it’s his sharper than average songwriting skills that really draw you in from the first track to the last. Take his methodically paced ode to the working class in “Assembly Line,” written by Montana and Natalie Hemby:
“All day long in steel-toed boots / vacation days that I’ll never use / there’s a rumor going round that’s got nothing to do with me / Charlie swears he’s gonna quit / put his two weeks in and that’s it / he’s been talking that way since the summer of ’93.”
The footwear might differ from your own, but the workplace politics and the emotional drain of a daily routine make this song universal. On the equally powerful “Last Horse,” on which he’s joined by Emmylou Harris, Montana exposes the fears of a man sizing up a relationship that’s headed south. He cowrote the song with Rodney Clawson and his father, Billy Montana, an accomplished songwriter himself (Jo Dee Messina’s “Bring on the Rain”, Garth Brooks’ “More Than a Memory”), and it’s definitely a standout number.
Born in Albany, New York, but raised in Nashville, music was as much a staple in Montana’s house as dinner on the table and he’s been feeding his musical hunger since the age of 10. Fifteen years later, his debut CD is hitting stores today. I chatted with Montana a few weeks ago about the album, what female country icon he recently blasted in his car, what he’s learned from former tour mate Taylor Swift, and his approach to songwriting and the music industry itself.
Your dad, Billy Montana, is an accomplished songwriter. In the nature vs. nurture argument, do you feel you were born with an ability to write great songs, or is it a skill you learned from studying him and other songwriters in the field?
I definitely feel it is passed down. And I’ve always felt like you either got it or you don’t, in a sense. But you never start off writing good songs. Somebody told me you gotta write 100 bad ones before you can write a good one, and I truly believe that. [laughs] So that goes against the whole genetic passing thing. I just grew up around it. [My dad] was always playing new songs, new demos. There was music around my house all the time and when you grow up like that, you take it for granted because it’s always there. It’s just your way of life.
What’s your favorite song of his?
He wrote one about our family called “House of a Thousand Dreams” [recorded by Martina McBride]. Yeah, that’s my favorite song of his that he’s ever written. It’s really about us and what’s cool about it is that each verse is from a different perspective. The first verse is from the perspective of the man. He’s like, “I’m just a man. I work with my hands, and lately no work has been around. I wish I could put more on the table and provide the life I’m sure my family dreams about.” And then he just starts describing the house and he’s like, “There’s cracks on all the walls and all the windows, and the flies they find their way in through the screen. But I’ll keep praying, hope will go on living, in this house of a thousand dreams.” And then it goes to the wife and she kind of has that same outlook. She looks at her husband and she’s saying, you know, he works hard and I know it’s tough, so I’m gonna do what I can. And then it comes to the kid, and the kid says he loves the way the wind blows through the screens. He loves it and he sees nothing wrong with it. And it’s just kind of how I grew up.
There was a piece recently on the Tennessean blog by Peter Cooper that kind of took a lot of male country artists to task for playing up the redneck / back-road themes a bit too much of late in their songs. What’s your whole take on all that?
I’m just as red as anybody. I hunt deer, I fish all year round, I love the outdoors. But for some reason I’ve never chosen to really sing about it. I can’t speak for anybody else. I will solely speak for myself. My take on country music is that it never has to be about the back road. It never has to be that. I get it, man. That’s life. There are many people’s lives that that applies to, but it doesn’t have to be [about that]. I feel like country music is all about feeling and connecting with people through a song. If it is about the party in the woods, more power to you. But if it’s also about living in your high-rise apartment downtown and the girl that you’ve been seeing for the last three months just told you she’s leaving you for your best friend down on 4th Avenue, it can be that, too. That’s what I love about country music. You could never, ever listen to a country lyric and not understand what the song is talking about. That’s country music for me.
Emmylou Harris sings with you on “Last Horse.” Take me through how that went down.
Emmy is one of the sweetest people alive. We’d already finished the track—background vocal and everything. We sent it to her and asked her if she wanted to sing on it. First of all, I’m in awe because think of the list of people she’s sung with. That blew me away. I remember sitting on the couch, and we’d talked about not getting anybody down there with cameras for a photo op. It was literally me, Jay [Joyce], who produced it, Jason the engineer and her. We were down in the studio and she was phenomenal, man. I tried to take as many mental pictures as I could. I specifically sat there and told myself to burn this in my mind because this may never happen again. I can honestly say that’s probably the coolest thing as far as collaborations go that I’ve been a part of in my short career. And I think it’s my favorite [track] on there.
This being Ladies’ Home Journal and all, what other female artists have inspired you?
I love Sheryl Crow. Patty Griffin. I think she’s an unbelievable singer and songwriter. I can’t get enough of Janis Joplin’s singing. I gotta say Dolly Parton. I was just on vacation in Wyoming and there was an old country station playing “I Will Always Love You.” I was sitting in the car all by myself and I just cranked it up. She just sounded amazing singing that song. Whitney Houston made it her own but I think a lot of people forget that no, no, no, no, no—it’s a Dolly Parton song.
You also played some opening spots on Taylor Swift’s current Speak Now world tour. What did you learn from that experience?
That was awesome. She does such an amazing job connecting with the person sitting in, you know, seat 334, row ZZZ. That’s what blew me away about watching her performances. I think the coolest one was in Foxboro. For my set it was dry and she came out and the skies just opened up. And nobody left. She does a great job of connecting with everybody in that audience.
Lastly, and tell the truth, have you ever gotten in trouble with your wife, or an ex, for writing something a little too personal in a song?
You always wonder! I mean, some of those stories might add up. But I’ve never gotten in trouble with my wife. What’s good is that finally, with her being around the music industry, I came home and played her a straight-up cheating song and she didn’t go, “Well, what’s this one about, Randy? Where’d you get the idea for this one?” I don’t know if any exes will ever listen to the record and go, “I wonder if that one’s about me?” I don’t know. I’ll be anxious. If I get that phone call, I’ll call you back.