If he's being honest, Eddie Montgomery will admit he never imagined a time when he'd have to go onstage without Troy Gentry. But after his Montgomery Gentry duo partner was killed in a helicopter crash last September, that is the sad reality he's facing.
In the wake of the tragedy, the burly Kentucky native decided to do what he thought Gentry would have wanted and keep the band going, at least for the time being. In February, Montgomery released Here's to You, the album they had finished recording just before the accident, and embarked on an ambitious tour without his longtime musical partner.
So far he's done a handful of shows on a full-scale run that is expected to last through mid-September. But speaking with Rolling Stone Country in his record label's Nashville office, Montgomery admits his return to the road has been difficult.
"I know I'm supposed to be a big badass outlaw or whatever," he says. "But when we hit the stage a couple weeks ago without him, I was so nervous. I was like 'Oh my God' – I thought I was gonna get sick. But finally I felt him in there, and I started smiling."
Montgomery Gentry officially began as a duo in 1999, but its two members had actually been performing together for much longer – at least 35 years in total, according to Montgomery.
They were both in separate bands that featured Montgomery's brother John Michael Montgomery and kept finding themselves onstage together. Sensing something unique in their vocal dynamic, they combined their talents for an edgy, Southern-rock sound, releasing nine studio albums and notching 13 Top Five singles like "My Town," "Something to Be Proud Of" and "Lucky Man" along the way.
Regardless of their recording success, entertaining rowdy concert crowds was how Montgomery Gentry got their start and where they always felt most comfortable. Even though Montgomery was devastated after the accident, questions soon arose about returning to the stage.
"The label was asking me and so were our friends, and the band was coming to me like, 'What are we thinking now?'" Montgomery explains. "I was like, 'I'm not sure, guys. What do you think?' Then we talked to [Gentry's widow] Angie, and she said, 'You know Troy would want you to do this.'
"Most of our [band members] have been with us 20 or 25 years, so we're family," he continues. "We've been through some stuff – personal stuff – and we've always helped each other out. So we had a meeting on it and decided, 'We can do this, and T would want us to do it, because it's always been a brotherhood.'"
Montgomery appeared onstage exactly once before the new tour started in late January, surprising fans during an emotional CMA Awards tribute to Gentry that featured Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts. Now he's back in the setting he and Gentry always navigated together, and whether it's on the bus, leading the band or talking with grieving fans, he's forced to confront his best friend's absence. "He's always there, and you ain't never gonna replace that. You can never replace him," says Montgomery, who honored both his fallen friend and Charlie Daniels this week by performing "My Town" at an all-star tribute to Daniels in Nashville.
The band is currently splitting up Gentry's vocal duties – and Montgomery says fans helped out big time during the tour's first weekend in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and St. Charles, Missouri – but for the first time in Montgomery's career, he's out front and alone.
"I'm still waiting for him to chime in after me," Montgomery says, thinking back over the years with a laugh. "We had this thing where we knew each other so well, I'd be singing and I knew Troy was gonna come in at the end of the song and start talking, doing his thing, so I'd go back and get me a drink. But now I'm like, 'Oh hell, I gotta get back up there!'"
Those kinks will be ironed out, but neither Montgomery nor the fans are willing to let Gentry's place in the band fade. Admitting he's not usually one to open up, Montgomery says talking with concertgoers after the first two shows has actually helped a little – and that he's already noticed a pattern. "We'll have a Jim Beam, we'll cry and we'll laugh, and I think that's the way it's gonna be," he says.
Looking ahead, Montgomery has no idea what the future will hold. He's not sure about releasing more music – though he doesn't rule it out – and so far just wants to keep going as long as the fans (he and Gentry made a point of calling them "friends") have his back.
"I'm gonna leave that up to our friends, and we'll know by the end of the tour this year," he says. "They'll either tell me to go home, or 'Hey man, can we have some more music?'"
Either way is fine with him, he says. Right now it's all about honoring what he and Gentry set out to do in the first place.
"Me and T didn't get into this because we wanted to be stars, and we've heard guys say that shit," he explains. "We got into it because we were born into it and raised in it, and we loved people. That's what it's always been about, having fun and living life … and life is very short."