Dan Montgomery Digs Deep 

click to enlarge Dan Montgomery - SHELLE CLELAND
  • Shelle Cleland
  • Dan Montgomery

If anything is going from bad to worse (and what isn't?), there's probably a Dan Montgomery song for it. The Jersey-born singer/songwriter, who's lived in Memphis almost 20 years, is no stranger to the hard life — either by way of living it or observing it in others.

The line, “I work on Federal Street, in a warehouse cutting meat, so tell me, why would I rush?” from his 2017 album Gone, gives you a hint of where his music lives, even when the music rocks. He writes about the good times too, of course, but few writers can write about tough times as unflinchingly as Montgomery.

That makes his new album, Smoke and Mirrors (a phonographic memory) (Fantastic Yes Records, out on April 10th), quite in keeping with his past work, but in another sense it's a departure: After years of story-songs about motley characters, he's focused an entire album on just one. Or, as the album's tag line puts it, “Ten songs, one story, two views, no regrets.”

The story is one of young Dan Montgomery, circa “The Winter of the Summer of Super Freak,” as the lead track would have it, putting our narrator in his early twenties, around 1982. The beautifully crafted gatefold LP, sporting a grainy Polaroid of a house party from that era, also features a narrative in the liner notes, Montgomery's heartfelt reminiscence of how two strangers befriended each other back in the day. “What do they have in common?” Montgomery writes. “They're both men of the Crystal Meth Persuasion.”

But the story that unfolds is richer and more complex than a mere addiction tale. “It really wasn't about drugs,” says Montgomery in his liner notes. “It was the conversations, the stories, the crazy ideas that made perfect sense after three sleepless nights.” In fact, much of the album dwells on the older man's life, and observations he makes on the lives of others. It's a uniquely literary approach that moved me to call Montgomery recently, hoping to fill in the details on his latest release.

Memphis Flyer: The character of Joe Gribbin that emerges from this album really feels like a living breathing person.
Dan Montgomery: Oh good. Thank you. Yeah, he was really my first great teacher and mentor. It's funny, because you don't think a bank robber's gonna be your spiritual guide, as it were. But he was like the living embodiment of that Dylan line, "To live outside the law you must be honest." He had his own code, and he lived by that. And I got a lot out of that, watching and learning from him.

How much did he influence you musically?
Musically, I was obsessed with Hank Williams back then. I still am. But he thought that was really interesting that somebody my age would be really into Hank Williams. And he played clarinet in prison, so every now and then he'd take it out and play a little bit. But he was more of an influence on my life, and how I lived my life, than musically.

The record sounds great and really suits being out on vinyl. It feels like a real rock band, with spot-on guitar tones and background vocals — a touch of horns or clarinet.

The recording was done relatively quickly. All the takes were done live on the floor. I think there's one guitar punch in on the whole record. The core band is great: Candace and Robert Maché, James Cunningham, and Tom Arndt are such a great band. As long as I don't screw up, we get a take.

I assume it's mostly Candace on the background vocals? They are really imaginative, in the vein of the inventive harmonies on Beatles records.
Yeah. They're amazing. On our other records, Candace sings a lot more. But because this is basically the story of a young guy and an older guy, it threw the vibe off to have too many female vocals. She's one of my favorite instruments in our band. She's an amazing singer. Her range is incredible. And I was a fan of Robert's playing early on, from when he played with Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate. I was a huge Dream Syndicate fan and actually met Robert in 1992. He was always one of my favorite guitar players, and then he ended up moving here!

And as good as they are as players, they're just even better as people. And nobody in this band is ever short of a great idea. I bring a song in, and I never say, “This should go like this or that.” Because then you put people in a box. And I'd rather hear what their interpretation is.

Robert Maché's playing is so versatile, from Mick Ronson-like riffs to little fills and chord patterns, kind of culminating in the extended jam on “The Right Time.”
That was a first take! Here's the crazy part. We recorded the album at James Cunningham's back studio, which is really small. So Robert's guitar amp was in the bathroom, with the door just cracked open a little bit. We weren't using headphones or anything, and none of us could hear what he was playing, including him, as we recorded it. So he's just playing blind and assuming it would sound okay. And then we listened back and it was like, “Holy shit!” We thought we were gonna fade that ending, but it just was so good. I was like, “Oh no, that's staying on there.”

Joe Gribbin is portrayed here in so many facets, from his prison days to his contagious sense of fun and beyond. Where is Dan Montgomery in all this?

I would say the title song, “Smoke and Mirrors,” is the most me. I was a very quiet kid back then. I was just an observer in a lot of ways. “Nervous Boy” is definitely me. The songs are a conversation between two people, really. But he was the more verbose one. “The Right Time,” that was really a conversation between the two of us. When I was totally petrified at the thought of becoming the sound man for the Ben Vaughn Combo, Joe said, “There's never gonna be a right time. Go out and do it, and if it works it works.” And it was the best piece of advice I'd ever gotten. It changed my life. I went to the next level of actually being involved in music instead of just thinking about it.

I had my first marriage, and Joe was my best man. One thing his daughter said, which I was always happy to hear, was that I was the only person who still came around when the drugs ran out. But then I came to Memphis and I didn't get in touch with him for a long time. When I finally called, he had just passed away from cancer. That was the whole point of making this record. I never got a chance to say goodbye in a proper way.

For more information, visit Dan Montgomery's website, danmontgomerymusic.com.

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