I've discovered what I would call the first great country music record of 2008. To be fair, I've hardly had the time or opportunity to check out everything that's been released since January, but I do pay attention as I can to what's going on. I'll also say up front that I'm not into the artsy-fartsy stuff, which may be musically superior, but often leaves me bored and restless. I enjoy and appreciate hymnody for all sorts of theological reasons, but when it comes to popular sorts of music, I listen to be entertained, especially while driving around in my car. Some things cut it, and some things don't. In my opinion, the new Montgomery Gentry record, Back When I Knew It All, is a real winner.
When it comes to good-time southern-fried country rock'n'roll, Montgomery Gentry has been gettin' her done for better than a decade now. To clarify, for those who may not know, Montgomery Gentry isn't a guy, but two guys: Eddie Montgomery (the brother of John Michael Montgomery) and Troy Gentry (I think; he usually goes by "T," sort of like my Gerhardt goes by "G"). Anyway, they know how to crank it out and crank it up in the fine tradition of Lynyrd Skynyrd, .38-Special, and other down home bands that blur the lines between country and rock. They've had some infectious hits in the past, but they've been getting better as they years have gone by, and this ol' boy's opinion is that they have really hit their stride with this new record.
I think my DoRena Beana would like this one. It reminds me a lot of Van Zant, and I think she likes them, too. In fact, Back When I Knew It All sounds more like Van Zant to me than like any of Montgomery Gentry's earlier efforts. It would land solidly between Get Right with the Man and My Kind of Country. But this isn't Van Zant, after all, and I want to be fair to the boys in the band who actually made this record. It's great fun from start to finish, fairly lighthearted and easy going, but not afraid to get serious here and there. The first song is "The Big Revival," featuring a southern holy-roller preacher at a snake-handling church in the mountains, which had me wondering at first, but I think it's sung with a wink and a nod, with no ill will intended. There's a great line toward the beginning in which it's noted, concerning the preacher, that "he ain't sure and we ain't sure exactly what he said," but "he testifies in tongues of fire with tears of joy runnin' down his face," so "praise the Lord and pass me a copperhead." Sounds all ablaze to me.
Aside from "The Big Revival," there are a number of more sincere references to preaching and the Christian faith, which come across with honest sincerity. It's not contrived or overdone, but seems to be a genuine expression of Eddie's and Troy's faith and piety — in the midst of their own station in life as country singers, as they sing about normal joes going about their ordinary jobs, and as they also revel in the good gifts of God's creation (including the liquid ones). I certainly wouldn't claim that Montgomery Gentry have a perfect understanding of Justification; they're not theologians in the usual sense of the word, anyway, though they are professedly Christians and not ashamed of that; but their enjoyment of life in the freedom of the Gospel may be compatible with a Lutheran approach. Or not. It's still entertainment, not evangelism. It's just refreshing to find something other than an "either-or" between Christianity and culture, if that makes any sense to anyone else but me.
Probably anyone with any interest at all in country music has already heard the title track, "Back When I Knew It All." That's a good song, on it's way to being played to death on the radio, but there's a bunch more as good or better on the record. I'd be inclined to say, there aren't any duds here. "Long Line of Losers," "One in Every Crowd," and "I Pick My Parties" (with Toby Keith) are the most fun. Some of the more thoughtful songs may end up being my favorites over the long haul, especially "It Ain't About Easy" and "God Knows Who I Am," both of which, interestingly, offer a fairly healthy perspective on vocation.