On a Friday night in late October singer-songwriter Bonnie Montgomery was onstage at the Performing Arts Theater at the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts in Little Rock, playing songs from her first two studio LPs and a few from "River," her new album that was released Friday on Fayetteville-based Gar Hole Records.
She will headline a pair of record release shows with her full band Nov. 17-18 at White Water Tavern in Little Rock, but last month's set was an acoustic affair with just her, a guitar, a microphone and a small but loving audience.
Montgomery's music is a mix of traditional country twang, Texas swing, folk and rootsy pop; her lyrics often are inspired by her childhood and family in Searcy and Izard County. She's a classically trained opera singer with music degrees from Ouachita Baptist University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music who can yodel like Jimmie Rodgers -- she covered his country blues "Last Blue Yodel (The Women Make a Fool Out of Me)" at the museum show, slyly altering the lyrics to a woman's perspective. And it's a safe bet that she's the only country artist you'll hear who has co-written a short opera, "Billy Blythe," about Bill Clinton as a boy in 1959 and that has been staged in New York, Ithaca, N.Y., North Little Rock and Little Rock.
Dale Watson, the Texas crooner who has toured and dueted with Montgomery, calls her "a sophisticated bad-ass who was born to sing." The Austin, Texas-based Ameripolitan Awards presented her with its Outlaw Female award in 2016 and she is a four-time winner at the Arkansas Country Music Awards -- Entertainer of the Year, 2020; Americana/Roots Artist, 2019, and Best Americana Artist and Best Female Vocalist in 2018.
"River" follows 2018's "Forever" and her 2014 self-titled debut. Another album,"Boat Songs 2002," came out in 2021 and is a mix of parlor-folk songs and spoken word vignettes Montgomery made from music and diary entries she'd written during a 19-day voyage from Seattle to Hong Kong aboard a cargo freighter (she traveled to China to teach English at Jinzhou University). She was also a member of Arkansas super trio Wildflower Revue, with Amy Garland Angel and Mandy McBryde.
A WAY TO COPE
Geoffrey Robson, music director of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, first met Montgomery when he moved to Arkansas almost 15 years ago. He has played violin on her albums, including "River," and was part of her touring band.
"She's a one-of-a-kind artist," he says. "Her roots as a country artist run deep. Then you have her top-notch, conservatory training that is a whole other dimension and that is really influential on all of her music. Listening to the new album you hear her sense of scale and space in the music, which is something I think can be contributed to her love for and study of opera."
Montgomery, 44, has an older sister, Holly (who wrote additional lyrics to "Billy Blythe"), and two half siblings, Rachel Paige Hart and Colt Montgomery. Her parents, Marcus and Vanna, divorced when she was 5. She grew up in Searcy and also spent time with her dad's people in Melbourne. She was a music-obsessed kid, taking piano lessons, jamming with family members and learning from the rotating cast of local musicians who visited Quattlebaum Music Center, the store opened by her grandparents, Ivan and Frances Quattlebaum in the mid-'60s. ("Joy," a track from her first record and one of Montgomery's best songs, is about Ivan, a White County raconteur who owned several businesses.)
It was a fertile time for young musicians in White County. Montgomery would go see Screaming Mimes, the high school band of singer-songwriter Isaac Alexander, who was a few years older than she and who she calls "Arkansas' Paul McCartney." She was classmates with guitarist Nathan Howdeshell, who, along with singer Beth Ditto of Judsonia and drummer Kathy Mendonca, formed the critically acclaimed band Gossip in Olympia, Wash. (Montgomery toured with Gossip in 2012.)
While she grew up surrounded by country, gospel, R&B, rock and pop, she gravitated toward classical and opera, which she called "about the biggest rebellion I could have done."
Later, music would become a balm, a way to cope with trauma.
Montgomery was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 1420, the plane that crashed upon landing at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock during a storm on the evening of June 1, 1999. Ten people were killed in the crash or from injuries sustained in the crash. It wasn't the first time she'd been exposed to sudden tragedy. When she was a junior at Searcy High School she went swimming in the Little Red River with her boyfriend, Johnny McLeod, and their 17-year-old classmate and friend, Collin Selvidge, who was carried away by the current and drowned.
"I couldn't save him," she says.
She's hasn't spoken much publicly about either event, but recently has begun to share her experiences. She wrote "Seventeen," a haunting, standout track on "River," about Selvidge, telling the story from his point of view.
RECORDING IN A BARN
During an interview on a sunny morning in early October Montgomery was sipping a Lucky Penny -- an oat milk latte with almond butter and mushroom blend -- at Arsaga's Mill District in Fayetteville. She wore a maroon dress with small, cream-colored polka dots; her hair, which is thick and dark, framed her often smiling face.
"River" was recorded in 2021 with her friend and band mate, multi-instrumentalist Kevin Skrla at his studio in a barn on his farm in Dayton, Texas.
Montgomery was living in Wimberley, Texas, and would travel to the studio for sessions that would last two or three days, paring her original 15 tracks down to the 10 that make up the record. Robson handled the album's strings.
The title track, a meditative song that highlights her mezzo-soprano voice, is from a story about her father, who died in 2007.
"His family had a farm near the Arkansas River," she said. "When he was about 6, he wanted to see the river so bad he climbed this big tree to get a look. He fell and broke his wrist in a way that was kind of disfiguring and that eventually kept him from being drafted for Vietnam. He was a philosophical guy and would say, 'If I hadn't fallen out of that tree, you might not be here.'"
Other songs refer to her brief marriage ("Cut You a Check") and loving someone with substance abuse issues ("No Way Around It").
"I think that the honesty that started with 'River' continues through the entire record," she says.
"It's amazing how ideas really start to flow when you're recording," Robson said. "Bonnie is such a great collaborator in that way."
THE OPERA THING
Montgomery, who moved to Wimberley in 2018, recently moved to Fayetteville after receiving a grant from the Northwest Arkansas Council. It was a move inspired in part from working with the Bentonville-based nonprofit House of Songs, which offers space for independent musicians to work and collaborate.
"After I got the grant, I just thought that I'd move up here to be closer to House of Songs. They really are this Utopia; they just want to provide a place for songwriters to come together."
It sounds similar to the Quattlebaum Music of her youth.
"It was always the place," Montgomery said of the store, which her mother, who remarried, took over in the '80s. "We would go there after school and hang out. It was kind of a Mayberry upbringing. That was my life. I was playing music all the time and practicing piano. I was a choir nerd, a drama nerd and very involved in all of the school plays."
Seeing her first opera at 15 was a life-changing experience.
"I was always wanting to go see music and theater, anything I could get my hands on because there wasn't a lot in that area," she recalled. "This traveling troupe came to Arkansas State University-Beebe and did scenes from 'La Bohème' and I was just overcome with so much emotion. I was in tears. When I got home that night I was like, what is this opera thing? It lit me up."
She attended OBU on a music scholarship and was a student of English professor Johnny Wink. The two remain close friends.
"Whenever I think of Bonnie's bunch in the late '90s, early 2000s, they were in some ways the most bohemian group of people that we ever had at Ouachita," he said. "Wild kids who were always into adventuring."
Montgomery, who was at the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline Protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota, "is one of the gutsiest people I've ever known," Wink added. "She will stand up for what she believes in."
Even as a student, she was already "wowing us with her singing and writing," he said. "She has a wonderful, gorgeous voice."
He recalls becoming smitten by "Spill," a track from "Boat Songs."
"It's just her and a piano and, man, I developed a fixation with that song. I would drive to Hot Springs or somewhere and play it over and over. It's such a powerful song. I had an obsession with it."
In June 1999, Montgomery was with the Ouachita Singers, a group of about 30 OBU students who had traveled to Germany to perform. They boarded Flight 1420 in Dallas/Fort Worth on their return to Little Rock.
"It was a really long journey," she says. "There were storms and we were delayed."
After it landed in Little Rock during stormy conditions, the crew lost control and the plane slid down the runway.
"Something was not OK about the way we hit the ground," she says. "I really knew something was wrong when I saw grass outside the window and the plane was fish-tailing."
The aircraft broke into three pieces and caught fire. Montgomery, bruised but otherwise unhurt, was in seat 27A, 10 rows back from one area where the plane broke. She was trapped for about four minutes, which "felt like years," and had to go toward the fire to escape through an emergency exit over the wing. The storm was still raging.
"When I exited, it was basically tornado weather. It was hailing and we were in the river bottom. It was swampy and flooded."
In the weeks after the crash she spent time at her father's farm in Melbourne and then took an extended road trip with her boyfriend in her 1974 Volkswagen Beetle, eventually ending up in Canada. She returned to school and threw herself into preparing for the lead role in an OBU production of Douglas Moore's opera "The Ballad of Baby Doe."
"It's very atonal and pretty far out," she says. "Looking back on it, doing that role was very good for me. The character would have complete meltdowns -- full, big, tragic arias -- and there were real tears and real emotion on the stage."
Montgomery has had to confront survivor's guilt and post traumatic stress disorder from the plane crash and the death of Selvidge and for about 20 years has been in therapy. She has been reluctant to speak out about her experiences, but recently began to realize that her story might benefit others.
"I felt like saying something, especially in an interview or on my socials, might trigger somebody else who was injured or lost somebody, and I figured that would be disrespectful ... . And I had survivor's guilt. I didn't feel like it was my place to speak about it. But I realized that this is part of my life and my story and maybe I could help other people by talking about it."
Montgomery tried to record "Seventeen," the song about Selvidge that appears on "River," with the Wildflower Revue, but couldn't get the right feel for the track. During the "River" sessions, she found what she was looking for.
"It was very intense and spiritual and I felt that we got it," she says of the recording session. "Sometimes I dream of Collin and I feel like I'm at peace with him, and sometimes I talk to him in my mind. His family was so kind and sweet to me, and I'm telling this out of respect to his family and loved ones."
MAKING PEOPLE HAPPY
She has several things to keep her busy through the rest of the year. She will be a judge, along with Robson, "American Idol" Season Eight winner Kris Allen and jazz musician Rodney Block, in the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra's first Arkansas Talent singing competition (round one auditions take place at the Little Rock River Market on Nov. 18). And there will be more shows around the release of "River," including gigs in Texas, the two-nighter at White Water Tavern and a Dec. 8 set at George's Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville.
Performing "is the reason for it all," Montgomery says. "That communication, back and forth, it's not alive until you can feel that. During the pandemic, I went into songwriter-composer mode, which is awesome, but it made me wonder if I'm more of a performer or a composer. But I think my natural state of being is as an entertainer. I've always been that way."
Musing on what she'd like listeners to get from her body of work, she says: "I hope it makes people happy. I hope it gives them something during their day that makes them see the beauty of life. Music is so healing. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for music. It saved my life."