"[I'm used to] always looking to my left and having him there," says Eddie Montgomery, one half of the venerable country duo Montgomery Gentry. Little more than four months after the untimely death of his 35-year singing partner Troy Gentry in September 2017, he's still grieving, still getting used to his new solo role. "Once you lose your brother, it's hard," he says.
Today Montgomery is at his record label's Nashville headquarters to discuss the duo's new album Here's to You, which they completed just before Gentry's death. He's looking sharp in a studded black suit jacket and the wide, flat-brimmed cowboy hat he's worn for years – but that's about the only thing that feels familiar these days.
Formed in 1999, Montgomery Gentry gained national attention with what – at the time – was a forward-looking mix of Southern rock and country, rounded out by the juxtaposition of Montgomery's rumbling drawl and Gentry's smooth, brighter vocals. Their just-plain-folks attitude led to a long run of success with hits like "My Town," "Something to Be Proud Of" and "Back When I Knew It All," foreshadowing a wave of rock-influenced hitmakers to come.
But on September 8th 2017, just two days after the duo had put finishing touches on Here's to You – originally conceived as their 20th anniversary album – tragedy seemed to cut the story short. Gentry and a pilot both perished when the helicopter they were in crashed near Medford, New Jersey, where the band was scheduled to perform later that evening.
The country community rallied around the Montgomery and Gentry families, turning out for a tearful funeral at the Grand Ole Opry House and giving a rousing tribute with Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts and a surprise appearance by Montgomery himself at the CMA Awards. Still, it seemed unlikely the band would continue on, especially since it was so dependent on the interplay of two very distinct voices.
But Here's to You is officially out today, and Montgomery has already embarked on the tour he and Gentry planned in its support.
"We put this band together, Nashville didn't," he says, explaining why he feels called to carry on. "If it had been a Nashville thing I probably would have gone, 'OK, it's over. I'm gonna go do something else.' But to me, he was my brother, he was my family. I want to keep Montgomery Gentry alive until I die, and then hopefully somebody else keeps it going."
Despite his conviction today, Montgomery admits he wasn't always so sure. After the accident, he says life almost felt like an out-of-body experience.
"I didn't know what was going on," he says. "I was just kind of lost. Then I started getting calls and emails from the label and also our friends, and they're asking, 'What are we gonna do with the CD? What about the tour?' And I'm going, 'Am I going on tour? Should I put the CD out?'
"At first I didn't want to go out, I didn't want to talk to anybody, I didn't really want to see anybody," he continues. "I was just kinda staying at the house, and my wife was like, 'You need to get your butt out of here. Have a little fun, talk to somebody.'"
Montgomery admits it's not in his nature to open up, but he took his wife's advice. Remembering a late-night conversation he and Gentry had years earlier about what to do if anything should happen to one of them, he reached out. First it was just with the MG band members, then his brother, singer John Michael Montgomery. Then Tracy Lawrence, their trusted songwriting partners and Gentry's widow Angie. The common thread was a simple one: "What would Troy want?"
"He was always about new music," Montgomery explains. "We couldn't get the first CD done and he'd be wanting to do the next one. He'd want to do everything live and I'm like, 'T, we haven't even learned it yet.' So I knew he'd be kicking our ass right now if we weren't pushing [Here's to You] out. … Actually, if it had been the other way around, he'd probably be going, 'Hey man, we need to get this thing out right now. Speed it up.'"
With the decision made to go forward, Montgomery was still leery about listening to their new songs. The emotions surrounding their final days together were too intense. Now though, he says the album is a comfort – and that it feels like a full-circle moment. It reminds him of the duo's first effort, 1999's Tattoos & Scars, and he says Gentry's vocals are the best the late singer ever laid down.
"At first it was like, 'I don't know if I want to [listen],' but eventually I gave in and it's really helped me," he says. "Just hearing his voice, I reckon. Every time I listen to it or hear one of the songs, it takes me back to times that we had – you know like back before we started growing up."
Even so, the album's first single "Better Me" is an example of their personal growth, as Gentry broke with band tradition and specifically asked to sing lead on it. Montgomery says his friend felt called to its message of self-improvement and leaving wilder days behind.
"The song really speaks to who he was," Montgomery says about the slow-building anthem. "I know he'd want people to hear it. If he thought ‘Better Me' would change one person's life, he'd want them to hear it."
The rest of the album features a tried-and-true mix of uptempo party rockers, heartfelt patriotism and small-town nostalgia, but Gentry's selfless nature also influenced the album's name, Montgomery says. Here's to You is not actually a toast to Gentry, but to everyone else.
"Everybody out there that's backed us over the years, through a lot of stuff, they've had our backs," he explains. "So for T-roy, that's what he would want to do. He wouldn't even be worrying about himself, he'd be like, 'Hey man, I want this to go out to everybody out here.'"
It's too soon for Montgomery to tell if more music will ever be released, but he won't rule out the possibility of previously unreleased tracks surfacing in the future. For now, he's already set out on the Here's to You Tour, sharing Gentry's vocal duties with the band members and the fans. It may go without saying, but the big-hearted singer is determined to keep his friend's memory alive.
"I definitely want to make sure we don't ever forget him, but of course, anybody who met him, you'd never forget him," he says. "It's just, I don't want to think about the accident, I want to think about all the great times we had. Because I know damn well I wouldn't be here if it weren't for him. We had something that we didn't even know."