Having been in the business for a couple decades writing hit after hit, including some very well-known number ones, Billy Montana is about to embark on releasing some of those tracks himself. Here, in conversation with Paul Sammon, Billy shares his experiences of making it as a songwriter, working with Garth Brooks, Lee Brice and others, plus tracks he wishes he’d written.
SSC- Hey there. Just for the benefit of our readers can we confirm you’re no relation to Hannah Montana?
BM – (Chuckles) My real name is “Schlappi”; it’s Swiss. “Montana” came about from when I was playing in a trio in the 90’s. We did a tour of Switzerland and one place introduced me as Billy “Montana” Schlappi because it was cooler to be a “Schlappi” than it was to be a “Montana” but I still have relatives in Switzerland. “Montana” actually came about because I’d been to the state for a friend’s wedding. I loved the place and at the same time Joe Montana was playing for the 49’ers and it was just a cool, tough name. So, I adopted the name and it stuck. I had the opportunity to tell Joe that story less than a year ago at a fundraising event we were both at.
SSC – You have such a colourful history, way back with Billy Montana & The Longshots. Do you want to tell us your story from there?
BM – Sure. The thing about having The Longshots happen made me aware of, first of all, how the songwriting process worked in Nashville, despite living in up-state New York which is about 900 miles away. We didn’t re-locate for the duration of being with Warner Brothers. The fact I was an artist meant the songwriting community wanted to co-write with me. They had the potential of getting a song on a project with a major label. That introduced me to some friends that I still have now. Steve Dean who’s on YN Records for instance.
I learned a lot about songwriting as a craft and that it takes work and I learned about the business, like how songwriters attempt to get their music with major labels projects. That was a good school for me to attend. So, when my record deal ended with no sizeable success, my eyes and my mind were open to becoming just a songwriter instead of a recording artist.
SSC – Were you doing it just to make ends meet or did you have your sights set on the “big game”, as it were?
BM – I think the “big game” is always at the back of your mind. We moved to Nashville in 1989 and I read an article that I didn’t want to share with my wife that said something like, “200 songwriters or less make $40K a year or more.” Here we had uprooted our family, following this dream. That was a very eye-opening moment for me insofar as I was shooting at a very small target.
SSC – What was the biggest hurdle in making a career out of what you do?
BM – Honestly, initially, it was making ends meet. I had to carry other jobs. The draw I was getting paid by my publisher wasn’t enough to make me a full-time songwriter. There was always that challenge, financially, of just trying to keep bread on the table and a roof over our heads.
SSC – On your website is an article from The Tennessean about the story behind Bring On The Rain. If anybody wants to learn about the ups n’ downs of the songwriting business that’s the place to start.
BM – Yes, he didn’t want make the article about the writers or about necessarily the process as such. It’s basically a biography of a song. What happens from inception to completion and destination of a song. That was actually my first hit record. I’d had other cuts; Tim McGraw’s very first album and the first two Lee Ann Womack albums. I used to write with Blake Shelton before his massive success as well. Bring on the Rain with Jo Dee Messina was released on September 10th 2001 and it got to number 1 in March 2002.
SSC – There were some 9/11 re-works of the song with President Bush soundbites, like The Change from Garth Brooks. Do you think that helped the song particularly?
BM – To some degree, yes, but I think it would have had the life that it had without that happening. I mean, it wasn’t a 9/11 song as such. But I am glad and humbled to know the song was used in that capacity as one of the first songs that was in the healing process of a country, after all Helen Darling and I wrote it way before then.
SSC – I notice quite a few of your songs are somewhat religious in tone. Is that you delivering commercially or is that from the heart?
BM – It’s genuinely how I feel. But for me, on a personal level, Christian songs don’t always speak to the masses. I’m not interested in preaching to people but I am interested in not hiding my faith. It’s been an important part of my walk, my life, my journey and my family, so I don’t try to hide it but I also don’t wave a banner for it either.
SSC – That said, your songs are so diverse within the country genre. You have One Love by Sister Hazel which is very Southern Rock and then you give us Gypsy Jubilee by The Bankesters which is positively Bluegrass plus all the big hits in-between. How do you manage to write in so many different styles?
BM – I guess it’s because I have a diverse interest in music. I am very influenced by music outside of the country genre. From the Eagles rock to Bob Dylan folk, even James Taylor or Tom Petty. I think the one thing, though, in all of those musical styles, that drives me the most, is the lyric. I have a tendency to appreciate more songs that say things lyrically or in a cool way. So, I guess they’re the kind of songs I attempt to write.
SSC – So, mechanically what comes first in a song? The lyric, or the title? The melody?
BM – For me, nine times out of ten, a title, or just words that sound good together. Words that have a flow, then we can delve into the story – “What does this make you feel?” I give my co-writers a great deal of credit in that as well. I have the kind of personality where I can get into their world and their space. If they wanna rock this up, I’m like, “Heck yeah man, I’m in, let’s do it.”
SSC – Do you have a favourite one of your own tunes that you’ve penned?
BM – That’s really hard to do that, like asking which is your favourite child. But I think the one that keeps surfacing, and when I play it, it seems to register, is House Of A Thousand Dreams by Martina McBride. I guess ‘cos it resonates with me – [When we moved to Nashville] that was us. I had a call from my son, Randy asking, “What’s the chorus of that song again?” It turns out he was getting a tattoo and those lyrics are now on his shoulder. I can’t tell you what that meant to me. The fact that song said so much to my son; I guess it just keeps coming back to that. If anybody remembers anything about me after I’m gone, I hope it’s that song.
SSC – Do you ever listen to a song and think, “I wish I’d written that”?
BM – Yeah, sometimes. Recently, one of the songs that just rocked my world was that Ingrid Andress song, More Hearts Than Mine. I think that song does lyrically what I attempt to do, in that you feel like you’re absolutely in the midst of that conversation. From an emotional standpoint, that song did it for me.
Craft wise, another fairly recent song that I just think, “Wow, they nailed that,” was A Guy Walks Into A Bar by Tyler Farr. Not from an emotional thing but from a craft point, in that the chorus they do such a good job. I call it ‘an economy of lyric’ It’s not long-winded and they get to the point. A guy walks into a bar, orders a drink and then by the end of the chorus the relationship’s over and he walks into a bar. That’s great songwriting to me.
SSC – You’ve just released Night Shift, a song of yours that Jon Pardi sang. Are you planning on releasing more?
BM – Yeah, we’ll release more songs. That’s the way to go these days. Now, my daughter Danielle and her husband are in a band called Birdtalker and they’ve been brilliant at getting Spotify followers. I’ve been able to watch what they do, like releasing different versions of songs for example. But with regularity. Maybe every six to eight weeks or so. It’s a very organic spreading of the word and music. Our next release will be Follow the River that Sister Hazel released in 2019. That’s a song I wrote with Randy.
SSC – We’ve spoken about Bring On The Rain. Can we talk about your other number ones? That one you did for Garth someone or other?
BM – Oh yeah. What’s he ever done? (Laughs) That was Lee [Brice]’s idea. His title, and he and Kyle [Jacobs] came up with most of the musical bit in that ascending, melodic part that gets very dramatic on the chorus. Lee had a previous relationship he had struggled to get beyond for a long time after it was over and that’s what spawned the idea of More Than A Memory. Garth Brooks is such a gracious human being. He invited us to the studio after he recorded it. He gave us a mini tour of the studio, sat us down at the console and before he pressed play, he actually said, “If there’s anything on here you don’t like, just let me know.” He sort of apologised for changing a couple of the lyrics without our permission but he took no writer’s credit for it on the release. The power of his career combined with such a dramatic, emotional song I think made it the perfect storm.
SSC – It wasn’t until I was researching for this that I discovered Suds In The Bucket isn’t a cover of an old song. Tell us about that?
BM – The record companies and the artists like the songwriters to know who’s recording when so we can send them the best that we have. So, Lee Ann Womack was looking for an up-tempo, traditional sounding country song. Tammy [Wagoner] and I wanted to write something that fit that bill. That was our target for the day. This was so different for me because we started with a concept. Hey, let’s write a song about a young girl finding her Prince Charming and leaving home. Because we knew what Lee Ann wanted, we started with like a hillbilly groove and as the music was going by to where we felt the hook should land, I was like, “how about, ‘She left the suds in the bucket and the clothes hanging out on the line’?” At the end of the day of writing that song I remember feeling that I didn’t know if it was a hit or not, but I loved it because it was mission accomplished. Sometimes the song takes you where it wants to go but this was the opposite of that, and everything came together that day. As it happened her camp passed but my publisher kept pitching and eventually Sara Evans picked it up.
SSC – How did your friendship with Lee Brice come about and writing Hard To Love?
BM – Lisa and Doug Johnson [Black River Entertainment] discovered Lee Brice when he was about 21 years old and loved his style and knew he had the potential to really be something special. He was introduced to me at the BMI Awards the night I won with Bring On The Rain. The first time we wrote together we connected on a songwriting level f’sure. We both loved the same things about songs. That was about 2002/3 and we continued writing through the years. We wrote More Than A Memory in 2007 and we got to share in that. In fact, Lee set me up on Garth’s Facebook Live about three years ago. He surprised me with Garth presenting me with the Diamond Award plaque for the album that track was on. Lee has been such a part of my career. We have so many cuts together. The way Hard To Love happened is we assembled guys like me and our goal was to write songs for his sophomore album. We [John Ozier and Ben Glover] showed him what we’d come up with and he knew straight away he wanted to cut it. It became the title track and Lee’s second number one.
SSC – It came up on a CES Virtual show that, when Lee Brice eventually comes over to the U.K. you’ll have to come over and support him. You can be the warmup act.
BM – I’m loving the way you’re thinking. I just had a text from him this morning about working on another song together. I may throw that out to him because that’s honestly a beautiful idea. I remember he got me out in front of five thousand people in Detroit once. I did Bring On The Rain and the audience got their phones out and lit up the place and they were singing along. Yeah, that could be a pretty magical moment.
SSC – Billy, it’s been fantastic talking with you. You have some great stories and amazing songs. We hope you can make it to the U.K. sooner rather than later.
Billy Montana’s website – https://www.billymontana.com/