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Montgomery taps honky tonk-ballad-opera roots

By Sean Clancy

This article was published January 31, 2013 at 2:21 a.m.

bonnie montgomery

— There will be a double dose of honky-tonk queen Bonnie Montgomery tonight at the White Water Tavern in Little Rock. The Searcy-born, Little Rock-based singer will perform two sets, one solo acoustic and another with her band.

“I’m gonna do more of my singer-songwriter stuff that I don’t usually get to do very often with the band,” Montgomery, 33, says from Nashville, Tenn., where she was riding around town with guitarist and fellow Searcian Nathan Howdeshell of Gossip. “And then we’ll bring the whole band out and do our standards.”

Montgomery’s most recent work, the three-song EP Cruel - with its timeless and clever title cut that compares a ne’er-do-well companion with Henry VIII, Catherine the Great, Judas Iscariot and Ivan the Terrible - was released on Howdeshell’s FastWeapons label. The two are also working on a new EP, Joy. A full-length album, Live at the Cake Shop, is also available.

“I’ve self-released lots of EPs over the years,” Montgomery says between pausesto give directions to Howdeshell as he drives them through the Nashville streets. “But the Cake Shop record was the first one I put onto iTunes and sold at shows.”

Montgomery, who spent two years living in Nashville before leaving in 2009, grewup surrounded by music. Her family owns Quattlebaum’s Music Store, the venerable shop that has anchored a corner of Searcy’s downtown square for more than 45 years.

While most kids were rebelling through hip-hop orrock ’n’ roll, Montgomery found an even more extreme route to express her individuality.

“I was just really into classical music. I took piano lessons, and when I went to college I studied classical,” says the Ouachita Baptist University graduate and opera singer, who earned a master’s degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. “I just really loved it from the first time I heard it, and in my own way I think it was pretty rebellious to go that route. The music was so different, and opera was so exotic.”

She has even written an opera. With Britt Barber, who wrote the words, Montgomery composed Billy Blythe, an opera about Bill Clinton’s youth in Hot Springs, that has been performed locally and in New York. It got thepair written up in The New Yorker, The Economist and other outlets.

So how does a classically trained opera singer start writing and singing hillbilly music?

“Country music was the soundtrack to my life growing up in Searcy,” Montgomery says. “But I never really reached out for it until my early 20s. But it was around me all the time, and I absorbed it. My family would get together and there would be a lot of country music. I thought ‘Your Cheating Heart’ was a Christmas carol until I was 11! It was just part of the fabric.”

Though they were in the same class in Searcy, Montgomery and Howdeshell weren’t tight until years later, when he would come to Little Rock on breaks from his work with Gossip, which is fronted by vocalist and fellow WhiteCounty native Beth Ditto.

Montgomery found herself in New York without a guitar player and gave Howdeshell a buzz. Although he couldn’t make that particular gig, the two later connected and started playing together.

“He said, ‘This will give me a good excuse to wear my bolo tie,’” Montgomery says.

The result was not onlythe collaboration on Cruel and Joy, but Montgomery opening for Gossip on its recent American and European tours.

Was there any trepidation, playing for fans of a band like the alt-dance-oriented Gossip?

“I was concerned about it at first,” Montgomery admits. “But it was actually a great fit. Nobody was really taken aback by us playing country. I think it’s because most of their American fans are aware of [Gossip’s] Southern roots.”

For a sample of the seamless interaction between the groups, sprint, don’t jog, to the nearest and search for Bonnie Montgomery and Gossip to see her and Ditto do their fantastic cover of Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” during an October show at The Fonda Theater in Hollywood.

“She is so good,” Montgomery gushes, when talking about Ditto. “We were together in Germany on the night Kitty Wells died and we sang that song all night long. We drove everyone crazy.”Bonnie Montgomery

10 p.m. today, White Water

Tavern, 2500 W. Seventh

St., Little Rock

Admission: $5

(501) 375-8400

Weekend, Pages 36 on 01/31/2013

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