It might have been the golden age of country but Melba Montgomery said you never saw a tour bus no matter how big a star you were. The first time she was working with longtime duo partner George Jones she remembers him pulling up with his band, their equipment hitched to the back of a station wagon. When George found out she bought a Cadillac, he announced that he was going to be riding with her the rest of the tour.
Sometimes it seemed that she and Jones would sing for hours going down the road, Montgomery recounted to Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale on a recent episode of the Buddy & Jim Show on SiriusXM Outlaw Country radio. There’d be some seven hundred miles to go and sometimes a 1:30 matinee awaiting them. Jones sat in the middle backseat with his guitar, Montgomery on her knees behind the passenger seat and they sang all night long. “I had my brother driving and we made sure we kept him up.”
Montgomery’s brother Earl “Peanut” Montgomery may have been a good driver but he was better known for his songwriting, including over seventy songs that Jones cut, thirty-three of which were singles. Montgomery’s other brother Carl is also well known writer. His song “Six Days On The Road” anticipated all of the country truck driving songs. Miller imagined how wealthy the writer might have been if every bar band rightfully paid him for being able to cover the song.
Music, it seemed, was always in the family. Some of Montgomery’s earliest memories are of her singing and swinging on the front porch with her sister. She sang lead and young Melba was on harmony, something she learned how to do at the age of four. Her parents both played fiddle and guitar. No one ever sat down to teach young Melba how to play music. “I just knew the keys and chords,” said the singer whose future record company would once emblazon an album cover with the line “America’s #1 Country and Western Girl Singer.”
Melba and her brothers formed a quartet that played within a 200 mile radius near their hometown of Florence, Alabama. By the time she was a teenager, Montgomery had been taken under the wing of country star Roy Acuff, who she describes being like a second daddy. He taught her a lot about stagecraft and they saw the world together, going to Great Britain, Europe and North Africa where they played a USO tour. They spent months playing in Australia where they appeared regularly on television.
It was George Jones who sent out a directive through his manager and producer to get someone in Nashville to find and sign Montgomery so he could work with her. The first song they song is one of the most well known, the duet Montgomery wrote called “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds.” The song went to number three and began over a decade’s worth of collaborations throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies.
When Montgomery met Jones, he was a famous country star and she knew all his songs. If the young Melba was nervous, she quickly developed a rapport with Jones who she says was a lot like her. “We were just country folks,” she says with deep affection. Jones is on record for saying he blended better with Montgomery than any other singer.
“We always sang from the same microphone,” Montgomery revealed. “A lot of times we’d get it on the first take.” Producer Pappy Davis would book two sessions for each album and they’d cut six songs at a time.
“I watched him and I knew when he’d go up to triple notes and I’d go with him. He’d get tickled at me. ‘How did you know I was going to do that?’ ‘Oh I just figured you knew I would,” she said describing their creative process.
Montgomery believes she was the first artist to record in the famed RCA Studio B. During one session she ran into someone who was cleaning up when he approached her. “Miss Montgomery, that’s what he called me, ‘I’ve got a tape of my songs. Would you take a listen?’ And I did and I liked them. He didn’t get any of them cut but I told him ‘Someday you’re going to be a big songwriter.'” The name of the janitor? It was Kris Kristofferson.
Lauderdale recalled the time he told someone he was working with Melba Montgomery and how floored they were with the mention of her name. The list of singers Montgomery has co-written with includes dozens of writers such as Bill Anderson, Kim Richey, Buddy Cannon and her two brothers.
Today in the studio with her was her daughter Jackie. Her husband Blake once told J.D. Souther he should write with his mother-in-law. When Souther, who has written some of the most famous songs by the Eagles, heard the name Melba Montgomery, he was in disbelief. “Your mother in law is Melba Montgomery?” He and Montgomery ended up writing several country and bluegrass songs. Along the way, he confided that he and Linda Ronstadt had once worked up a version of one of Montgomery’s duets but every time they compared it to the original version, they decided to shelve it. Montgomery laughed about how much royalties she lost as Ronstadt was “hotter than a firecracker” at the time.
The affection for Montgomery in the country community is such that when Emmylou Harris would change her set every night, the one song she never changed was Melba’s own “One of These Days.” The song was a particular favorite of Emmylou’s mother.
Montgomery says she is grateful to Miller and Lauderdale for promoting country and Americana although she doesn’t hear it as often as her truck doesn’t have satellite radio. She keeps it mostly tuned to WSM, the station where she and her brother once won an amateur talent contest. Those were the days when the station hosted the Grand Ole Opry.
With a classic air of humility and understatement, she sums up a lifetime of singing and songwriting by saying: “I’m just glad to be part of the country music scene.”