Bonnie Montgomery and her Musical Balancing Act
When Bonnie Montgomery strode onto stage wearing polka dots and a shy smile, the crowd in Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater clapped politely. After she’d sung and strummed a couple songs, backed by some tasty guitar twang and a steady standup bass, the mood shifted. Montgomery’s music sent listeners through time to the era of classic country, alongside Patsy, Loretta, and the Hanks. The applause was louder, and there were hoots and hollers between songs. Not bad for a girl from a small town in Arkansas.
Music pervaded Montgomery’s childhood. Her family owned two music stores while she was growing up, so music was always in the air.
“I was very fortunate to be surrounded daily by all sorts of musical instruments and musicians. The ho-downs we had at my grandparent’s house were very influential because my family invited some great musicians over (some who even recorded for Sun Records!) and we’d play lots of old songs,” she says. Montgomery started piano lessons as the mature age of five, so it is hardly shocking that she became a wonderful musician. But opera? Yes, classical music also played an important role in Montgomery’s cultural upbringing.
As a teenager, she saw La Bohème at a nearby college. The show was low budget, but it enthralled her. “It was moving to me, and I had never seen anything that beautiful. It changed my life,” the singer says. Years later, she read a biography of fellow Arkansawyer Bill Clinton and found herself captivated. She quickly envisioned an opera about the young Clinton. She composed the music while her friend Britt Barber wrote the libretto for the opera, named Billy Blythe.
“Writing an opera is a whole other feeling and process than writing or especially performing songs. When I wrote the opera, I made a strict schedule for myself and sat at the piano writing and working ideas out. It’s a more intellectual process than the intuitive process of writing songs. Classical composition is a really special thing, full of amazing moments of inspiration.”
The opera has performed in Little Rock and New York and garnered notice in sources as disparate as The Economist and The Huffington Post.
Montgomery writes highly personal lyrics that can break hearts, and she also pens songs literate enough to appeal to an educated audience. Songs like “Joy” and “Cruel” can feel like a gut punch, yet provoke a wistful smile at the same time. It makes sense then that some of her lyrical inspirations include giants like Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash.
When Montgomery is onstage, she looks like America’s sweetheart. She carries herself that way too, yet a subtle grit to her persona and the subject matter of her songs add a weight to her performance.
“Being tough and sweet is part of being a dynamic and real person, especially as a woman in the South. As oppressive as the South can be, there has always been a place for a bold woman in the home and the community. I guess if you happen to be naturally sweet, it’s just icing on the cake.” Ever the performer, she adds, “Of course, sometimes if you don’t feel sweet, you gotta fake it.”
Montgomery’s songwriting methods vary, but normally she’ll “get a musical idea, jot something down about it, ruminate on the theme of the song, and make the words rhythmic. My little recorder helps a lot because I can capture ideas as they evolve.”
The singer spends much of her time on the road. Although a touring schedule is chaotic, she loves traveling, and she still tries to wake with the sun. It isn’t easy, yet Montgomery prefers touring to recording or songwriting.
“They’re all hard work, but recording in the studio feels like harder work.” She likes the creative process and detail-oriented studio work, but she is truly “at home and at ease on stage.”
Montgomery says her dream gig would involve a small club like the Little Rock’s White Water Tavern, where she would share the bill with friends and musical heroes. In terms of opera, she would love to see “a full-fledged performance of my work at a great opera house, or a non-traditional place for opera, like a bar.”
When asked if there was anything that would surprise her fans, Montgomery said, “I pride myself in being a good driver, and I dream of being a trucker!” A country singer, an opera composer, a truck driver. Sounds like a renaissance woman. That’s Bonnie Montgomery.