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Honky-tonk hybrid

Bonnie Montgomery channels a legacy of formidable White County women.

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'FOREVER': White County composer Bonnie Montgomery follows up her 2014 debut with a new album, "Forever." - JASON MASTERS
  • Jason Masters
  • 'FOREVER': White County composer Bonnie Montgomery follows up her 2014 debut with a new album, "Forever."

I'm beginning to wonder if there's something in the water in White County. The county seems to have a propensity for producing bona fide bad-ass women musicians. Mid-south's outlaw crooner and Searcy native Bonnie Montgomery, who toured with Gossip when country legend Kitty Wells died, recalls driving bandmates crazy when she and Beth Ditto, also from White County, belted "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk" over and over into the wee hours, their first chance to share a few drinks and get loose. The two eventually performed it as a duet, singing it together stateside at LA's Fonda Theater to close out the tour.

Montgomery acknowledged she never gave a second thought to her fearless self-direction because, as it turns out, all the women in her life were bosses. Her grandmother ran a successful beauty shop, then opened a music store that sold pianos and organs. She eventually ran for mayor, and navigated all those positions in the context of 1960s small-town Arkansas. "She was larger than life, really beautiful and strong. She gave me a lot of life lessons I use all the time," Montgomery said.

"I never thought twice about being the boss lady in the band and writing the songs and calling the artistic shots," she said, laughing, "though I've definitely noticed a difference in my attitude in dealing with business in the music industry. That includes clubs and club owners and all of that, because that is mostly still men and I'm definitely up against some challenges that my male counterparts don't have to face."

For Montgomery, music was truly foundational. Her mother eventually took over the music store and expanded its selection. Playing music at family gatherings was a regular thing. Montgomery grew up sight-reading country classics from the likes of Hank Williams Sr. to play chords on the upright piano, jamming along with her family, as well as friends who just happened to be session musicians — Memphis' Sun Records-caliber musicians, at that — come holiday time. "We didn't watch TV or play recorded music," she said. "We'd just sing." Eventually she chose to study formal classical voice.

"It was sort of my way of going metal or punk, but instead I went classical," she explained. "It was so rebellious in a way, so different from what I was raised by." But somewhere along the way the many choir directors and conductors who called the shots — mostly male — really got to Montgomery. "I was really tired of men telling me how to use my voice," she said. She was singing a lot of medieval choral works then and, although she loved it, she decided to go back to her roots.

"It was so liberating because I could just sing however the hell I wanted to sing," she said of making the transition. "I've discovered a lot about myself in this exploration of going off the rails of the classical and going into a genre that has a lot fewer rules. It's been a really interesting journey." At times, that journey's been lonely. She worried about the dichotomy of her classical training — about being both a person who composed the opera "Billy Blythe," about the young life of Bill Clinton, and an outlaw country musician — until she realized that it all came from the same place. "It's all the same thing. Those two different parts of me are coming from the same place, and it's OK to blend them and talk about them in each different atmosphere and just be myself," she said.

Expect "Forever," the follow-up to Montgomery's self-titled 2014 debut, in February. Montgomery said the album, recorded at Dale Watson's Ameripolitan Studios in Austin, Texas, "captures the mysticism of West Texas, life on the road and love and loss." The new album's release will be announced on bonniemontgomerymusic.com.

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