By CHRISTOPHER TREACY
It took a stint behind bars for Kristian Montgomery to find creative freedom.
Informed by an edgy country sound that blends Americana with southern-fried rock and even glimpses some super-light grunge, Montgomery has crafted a watershed record in The Gravel Church. But it came at a steep price: six months of incarceration as a result of voicing his disagreement with a family court judge.
“I wrote more than half of the record in prison,” he said in a recent chat from his Middleborough home where he and his wife were steaming up some fresh quahogs caught earlier that day. The title of the album refers to the yard — a barbed-wire-fenced patch of dirt — where he was allowed to roam while locked up.
“It was the first time that I’d ever been there. I saw some crazy stuff, and I’m not suggesting it’s a good idea for anyone. I got in a fistfight; I got put in solitary – it was a real horror show. My producer, Joe Clapp kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry you had to go through all this, but man — these songs are awesome.’ I guess the takeaway might be that being a male in probate court is detrimental to one’s health. But these new songs started coming together about starting over, having nothing, and finding a way to build your life back to where you want it to be.”
While the sound of the music he’s making has shifted, some of his most basic goals have not. As the frontman of Bone Dry System, formed in 1992, Montgomery and his bandmates used to covet the elusive spot on WBCN’s Boston Emissions playlist. The show has since moved from WBCN to WZLX to being online-only for the past two years, but “5 Horses” from the new album was the Boston Emissions Song of the Week in early April. With a striking post-apocalyptic tone and it’s “…Might as well go now” refrain, the track speaks to our collective contemplation of mortality as a species in the throes of a global pandemic. It’s appropriately surreal.
Montgomery says the song came to him after watching an old episode of Wild Kingdom on YouTube. The show was uploaded with the iconic ‘Keep America Beautiful’ PSA still tacked on, wherein the Native American horseman cries at the sight of a littered coastline. “It was very spur-of-the-moment, and I came up with the riff on a guitar from Nashville Guitar Company. If there’s a musical influence, it’d be Peter Gabriel.”
Montgomery cites Gabriel and Neil Young as huge influences, along with late Soundgarden frontman, Chris Cornell. Listen closely, and you’ll hear all three come through at different times on The Gravel Church, Cornell being a vocal inspiration throughout. But it was well before he’d ever heard Cornell sing that folks took notice of his voice. As is often the case with standout vocalists, Montgomery cut his teeth singing in church, where his grandmother, who he lived with, conspired with the choir director to bribe him into singing solos.
“When I was a kid, I was in church with my grandmother, and the reverend walked past and heard me singing,” he explained. “I was 10. He pulled my parents aside and said, ‘the kid has pipes, let me give him some lessons.’ It quickly went from hymns to Led Zeppelin. He was a very cool guy, and he’d formerly been a tenor with the Boston Pops. As far as being a reverend was concerned, he was more of a rock star to me. He had this super powerful voice. Sometimes he’d scare people with it, and I envied that power.”
The messages that Montgomery uses his vocal chops to deliver on his new record are more pointed and poignant than most of what’s going on currently in the world of mainstream country. Uninterested in candy-coating, he writes unflinchingly about some taboo topics. “Look at My Child” was penned for his brother-in-law, who returned from war in Afghanistan forever damaged. “The Tracks” is about being a channel of communication for a conspiring pair of co-defendants. Some songs are about events in jail, while others are about healing his life afterward. The opener, “Boston,” describes a love/hate relationship with a city that reads like a metaphor for addiction, while “The Bird Won’t Fly” is about his current wife, his biggest fan and supporter. In spots, he uses startling spoken word segments to illustrate his viewpoints. The resulting feel is of something charged with meaning rather than cooler-and-beach-blanket fluff.
Unsurprisingly, Montgomery feels that the genre we know as ‘country’ has lost its way.
“The genre as it stands today is very propaganda oriented… love your country, support your soldiers, support the war machine,” he said. “Originally, country music was attached to the blue-collar working class. In its classic sense, I draw a parallel between country and punk, which was embraced by the lower class, struggling folks… people of the street. I grew up skateboarding in Harvard Square and getting my head smashed in at punk shows. Over time, punk got less edgy and became the music of the masses, but the message changed less than it has with that of country, which flies in the face of everything it once stood for. Like punk, country music was supposed to question authority and support individual freedoms. Now it seems to be about conformity.”
But while conformity isn’t compelling to Montgomery, getting his music out to more people certainly is. He says he fears releasing new music during a pandemic might be ill-advised. But the flip side of that idea is that more people have time to listen right now than when they’re trying to keep pace with their complicated modern lives. For a man whose manager used to tell him and his Bone Dry bandmates, “You guys are the next Van Halen,” his career in music is more about humility these days. And maybe, on a larger scale, doing his small part to perpetuate some necessary change.
“I think this crazy time is an awakening of sorts,” he said. “I think people are recognizing how hard they’ve been working, blindly pushing along, and how it has affected their families. We’re not meant to just keep going until we can’t go anymore. We’re supposed to be able to enjoy our family and foster relationships. Running ourselves ragged so that there’s nothing of us left shouldn’t have to be the secret to success.”
“A lot of this record is about moving forward,” he continued. “It has plenty of little nuances and details to discover for anyone that wants to spend the time. And as long as the songs mean more to me than to other people, I know I haven’t lost sight of it being a creative thing. You can get lost in that world pretty quickly when it’s not art anymore, when you’re pandering to try and achieve a certain sound or appeal to a specific group of people. I don’t want to become that guy. I’m just another worker among workers.”
For more information about Montgomery or to purchase The Gravel Church and other merchandise, click HERE. The website also contains links to his Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages.