On a couch in the green room of Coyote Joe’s in Charlotte, Randy Montana’s lead guitarist, Trae Gunter, is picking at the label of the Bud Lite bottle between his legs. “I am waiting,” he says. He then looks to me, smiles, and explains that this phrase, taken from a Rolling Stone’s song, has served as his life’s motto the past year.
Meanwhile, on the couch beside him, the man I came to interview — Universal recording artist Randy Montana, whose first single has just hit country radio — is dozing in and out of sleep.
It’s 3:15 PM. Montana and Gunter are currently waiting for Gloriana, the breakout country band for whom Montana will open tonight, to begin sound check. Eight hours from now, after Montana and his band mates have taken the stage, I will overhear a pretty blonde girl telling her pretty blonde friend that she would “absolutely go home with this new Montana guy.” Five minutes from now, one of the members of the Gloriana quartet — a hipster-looking dude with Billie Idol hair and Jesse James sleeve tats — will walk past us and tell Montana how great he sounded last night. But right this second, nothing’s doing. All’s quiet on the (country) western front.
So Montana sleeps.
And Gunter waits. “It was a long drive,” Gunter suddenly offers. He glances over at the sleeping Montana and then back to me. “Randy and I have been trading shifts at the wheel. We were in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania last night.”
At this, Montana stirs awake. “Yeah, man,” he mutters. “I really need a nap.” I ask Montana how long he thinks it will be before Gloriana begins its sound check. “No telling,” he says. He closes his eyes and again nods off. And here is my first insight into what I came here to find out: life for a newly released major-label recording artist is a whole lot of grunt work, and a whole lot of waiting.
“Nah, man,” Montana tells me, “I don’t think I had any real illusions of it being glamorous.”
Montana and I are now standing at an outdoor bar at Coyote Joe’s. I have just finished an unsolicited conversation with Montana’s keyboardist, James Farrell, about the roots of Mormonism, and moments before that, I was in an unsolicited conversation with Gunter on his love for philosophy and Richard Bach, so to be completely honest, I am half-waiting for Montana to answer my question about life
on the road by giving me a dissertation on the existential merit of Fear and Trembling. Instead, Montana stops mid-thought and explains to me that his father, now a wellrespected Nashville songwriter, went on tour with his own band in the ’80s.
“So, as a kid I saw my dad do it, so I knew it wouldn’t be glamorous. But until you’re runnin’ on eight hours of sleep in three days, you can’t know what tour is really like.” He stops and spits dip juice into an empty water bottle.
I ask him where they have been sleeping. “Other than the van?” Montana says. He runs his fingers through his shaggy hair, “Super 8s and Econolodges.”
I glance to the parking lot where Montana’s van sits dwarfed by Gloriana’s massive tour bus. The van is one of those innocuous numbers that looks as if it, prior to carting around Montana and his band, belonged to either a church youth group or one of those guys you don’t want your kiddies near.
“Yeah,” Montana says, “The whole thing’s a grind, but it will make me appreciate things when they get better — when there is actually a bed to sleep on and not a bench in a crappy van.”
And while this is certainly a clich’, against my will I find myself believing it. In fact, there is something about Montana that makes his whole persona believable: the boots, the cowboy jeans, the dip, the shaggy hair. Somehow, on Montana, all these country formulas seem authentic. And after spending several hours with him, I’m beginning to wonder if he seems so authentic because he’s not trying to be authentic at all.
For instance, when I ask Montana who he’d compare his music to, he says the Wallflowers. When I ask him who he is currently listening to, he tells me Nickelback.
The dude wears cowboy boots, has a voice as twangy as Sammy Kershaw, and he tells me — for an interview — that he likes Nickelback. Other than Tiger Woods, no one publically admits they like Nickelback. Especially not image-conscious country artists.
But that’s what’s so refreshing about Randy Montana: His lyrics are country, his voice is country, his look is country, but it seems he’s not caught up in trying to appear country.
I mention this to him, pointing out that most country artists would say someone like Hank Williams Jr. or Johnny Cash, and he just laughs. “Yeah, I like those guys, too,” he says, “But country music is so broad, you know? Anyone can find something they like. If you like Nickelback, you’re gonna like Jason Aldean; if you like Merle Haggard, you’re gonna like Jamey Johnson.”
“Yes,” I tell him, “but what about people who say that country music isn’t country anymore. People who say they like old country — like Hank and Johnny — but don’t like the new stuff.”
Montana thinks for a second. He spits more Skoal into his bottle and, nodding, says, “Yeah, I understand that. Those were the first country songs ever written. The first drinking songs. But I think those songs defined the genre we’re still in today.”
“In other words, you’re just saying the genre has grown?” I say.
“Exactly.” And I can’t help wondering if Montana isn’t right. His response reminds me of a statement David Berman once made in the Nashville Scene comparing contemporary country music to alternative (“traditional”) country music: “One thing that cracks me up in the Nashville local music scene,” Berman said, “is this verbal battle between Music Row and alt-country… all these [alt-country] people singing about a life they never knew — it’s really a fetishization of Depression-era country life. If authenticity is really the issue, then there’s something more authentic to me about Wal-Mart country, which speaks to the real needs of the people who listen to it, more than talking about grain-whiskey stills.”
I’m about to ask Montana to elaborate on this matter of “authenticity,” when he suddenly tells me a story about two well-recognizable new country artists, one of whom is known for a sappy love ballad, the other for a patriotic, down-home-country anthem. The story goes that these two artists went hunting together, and that Ballad Boy, a die-hard hunter, had to teach Country Boy how to load his gun. Montana, an avid hunter himself, tells me this story matter-of-factly, without a hint of mockery or condescension, and I suddenly realize that, in telling me this, Montana is simply answering my question. He is not, like most artists I’ve spoken to, being passive-aggressive or self-aggrandizing. It dawns on me that Montana’s whole ethos is built around avoiding self-aggrandizement. Montana isn’t comparing himself to — or competing against — anyone, which is what opens him up to being likeable by everyone, which is why he’s a perfect metaphor for today’s country music. I’ve been with Montana for more than three hours now and the only thing I can possibly say bad about the guy is this: He’s almost too nice.
“Listen, I got songs that cover a little ofeverything,” Montana tells me, “It’s a raw sound, and I know it. I’m leanin’ toward that rock edge, and I know it.”
Montana, who was signed as a songwriter with Sony before signing as an artist with Universal, had a hand in writing all but two of the songs on his upcoming album. I ask him if he feels at all obligated to write more traditionally “country” lyrics.
“Nah,” Montana says, shaking his head, “I just write from experiences. For me, it’s a matter of pulling from true experiences and emotions.”
I point out that the majority of his songs, including his single “Ain’t Much Left of Loving You,” are very dark songs.
“Yeah, I know,” Montana says, “…but people don’t look back at, say, fall of 2007, and think, ‘Man, that was great.’” Montana shakes his head. “Nah, it’s bad times that are the most memorable. That’s life. It ain’t all happy times. And I’m just pullin’ from the emotions I’ve felt in some of my bad times. I just write about who I am.”
“So then who is Randy Montana?” I ask. Montana leans back against the bar.
Considering the question, he scratches his chin. “God, man, that’s a good question,” he says. He remains in deep thought.
“Tell ya what,” I say, “Whose career would you like to have.”
Without a moment’s thought, Montana says: “Willie Nelson. Because it’s been such a long career. Also because Willie does and writes and sings whatever the hell he wants. I mean, every word Willie sings, he means. I feel the same about my stuff. Every song you hear me sing tonight, you better believe I’ll mean every word of it.”
I’m about to circle back and re-ask my initial question when, suddenly, the head of security for Coyote Joe’s, a guy whose bald head and thick arms make him look eerily similar to Mr. Clean (or that freak from Saw), interrupts us to ask for Montana’s cell number. The security guy explains that he needs to program Montana’s name into his own cell phone so Montana can call him that night if he needs anything.
I watch as, uncomfortably, Montana gives the guy his phone number. When he walks off, I look to Montana and ask if this is normal, if club security often asks for cell phone numbers from the artists performing at their clubs.
“Nah,” Montana says, “They don’t. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have given that guy my number. He just caught me off guard.”
“Think Willie would have given him his number?” I ask.
Montana laughs and spits into his bottle.
“Hell no; Willie would have told him to screw off.”
And perhaps this exchange answers my question about who Montana is better than the man himself can. Perhaps the real difference between Willie Nelson and Randy Montana comes down to a matter of experience: While Willie Nelson is self-confident enough to tell a bouncer to screw off, Montana’s timidity just earned him a new texting buddy.
“Five years,” Montana says, “It takes five years to make it to the top of country music. And when I say the top, I’m talking about your Kenny Chesneys and your Tim McGraws. Think about it: Who all you got up there?” Montana puts his beer on the bar and begins counting on his fingers. “You got your Keith Urbans, your Toby Keiths…” Montana — who will be opening several dates for country powerhouse Sugarland in the fall — continues to name the few other artists at the top of the country-western food chain: names so big even Borat knew them when he crossed the pond. As Montana and I are having this conversation, I notice a handful of doe-eyed girls looking our way. This is because Montana’s set has just ended — a set that saw him perform a mixture of rockinfluenced contemporary numbers with a few Kristoffersonian ballads — and, whereas these girls likely had never heard of Randy Montana two hours ago, they now suddenly know he’s Randy Montana. Say what you will. The branding system works.
It’s after midnight now and, with a flock of new fans around him, Montana tells me that, after being disciplined on the road the past few nights, he plans to cut loose tonight. True to form, just as he’s about to resume naming the list of top country stars, his brotherin-law — who incidentally happens to be NASCAR legend Kyle Petty’s son — interrupts us to ask Montana to take a shot with him. Montana apologizes to me and then runs off to take the shot.
“So what gets you to that level?” I ask him when he gets back.
“What level?” “That top level of country music.” Montana asks the barkeep for a fresh beer then turns back to me. “Radio. Radio and opening for other acts,” he says. “In the beginning, it’s all about radio and getting your stuff out to the mass.”
“How do you ensure your song gets played on the radio?” I ask.
“My label puts me in showcases where I perform for reps from various markets. Then, it’s up to the PDs [program directors] from those markets to decide if they want to play it.”
I tell him I imagine there have to be legions of new artists competing for these slots.
“Oh yeah” he nods. “Just on my own label alone there are three new artists being released this spring.”
“So how do you make yourself stand out?” I ask.
“Just by hitting the road and doing what I do and hoping people like it.” Montana picks at the label of his beer, thinking. “Our single’s in the 40s on the charts right now, and we’ve only been out for five weeks.”
“About how long does it generally take a debut single from a new artist to crack the Top 10?” I ask.
“Thirty-five weeks,” he tells me. He takes another sip of his beer and then nodding, as if to himself, repeats: “Around 35 weeks.”
His voice trails off and suddenly, as he turns to the stage, his eyes now trained on Gloriana — whose first single topped out at No. 15 — it becomes clear to me what Montana, and really, anyone in Montana’s position, is facing: a lot of waiting, a lot of hoping and a lot of grunt work to make things happen.
Matter of fact, it would seem that everyone in the music business is waiting. That is, everyone outside of your Chesneys and your McGraws and your legendary badasses like Willie Nelson.
Here in the Triad, popular country artist Chris Lane is waiting on a record deal.
Gloriana is waiting on a new song that will put them in that exclusive club at the top. John Mayer is waiting on the world to change. And all the while, Trae Gunter
is waiting, too — waiting for his lead singer Randy Montana to realize who Randy Montana really is. Because Gunter know that once Montana sheds the timidity, stops giving out his number to club bouncers and realizes just how good he really is, neither of them will ever have to sleep in an Econolodge or a van again.