Bonnie Montgomery is a classically trained musician settled in central Arkansas. That's a bit of a misnomer, actually. She's taught and performed around the world, and is a composer and excellent musician with two bands (based in Central Arkansas and Austin, Texas); a recording artist that has released multiple records; and thinks of herself as a "lucky" person across the board.
Her opera, Billy Blythe, about a young Bill Clinton, just had its world-premiere in Ithaca, New York and enjoyed glorious national reviews.
The following, then, is a brief interview that she took the time from her busy schedule to give me.
NF: So how was New York?
Bonnie: It was great.
Did they perform your opera well? Tell me about it.
They did the world premiere of Billy Blythe. This little opera company that just started 2 years ago out of Ithaca, and I stayed with one of their board members so they put me up and it was really nice and they had me in for the rehearsals every night.
Asked me all kinds of questions about the story and the South. They were so professional... I mean these are real opera singers that have careers and have done all kinds of roles.
How was the theatre?
It was a modern theatre. It only had 99 seats, so everyone has complete stage view and the audience members were right there with the actors. Everybody on the crew was so on top of it all, too. It was a completely professional presentation. All I had to do was just be the little butterfly.
Hey, you created the thing! And you were there for their debut! You deserved to be treated nicely. You're getting credit where it's due - You've earned it!
Don't worry, I've settled into the Diva mode. It was just otherwordly. They were bringing to life something that had just been a thought in my mind.
Let's go back here. When did you write this?
After I graduated from the Conservatory in Kansas City I was just a free bird and started to sing in my own voice again and write real songs. I had been in school for 7 years and I was really regimented so it was really nice to be free.
Hey - I'm curious. As a musician, do you think of yourself as an opera singer? Or what?
I'm still trying to figure that out.
Just a singer. You don't have to define that. And a composer! Surely you've written more music than this opera.
I have written other ideas for voice and piano. Pretty much Classical...
I don't think I really started writing until my early 20's.
That's amazing Bonnie... I've watched you perform on many occassions and you're a natural. I don't get the impression there's a lot of delberate thought involved. You're just being yourself on stage.
I was probably 22 or 23 when I really discovered it all. I'd been this really classical musician... I did what the teachers told me to do... and I studied as hard as possible. I didn't really explore my own capabilities until then.
I hope you realize that you couldn't have gotten any luckier than having Jimmy Young.
Oh, I know that. And it's natural. He doesn't 'try' anything.
When did you start making music? And a question I've asked everybody for 35 years: What was the first song you ever performed?
They had me singing in church when I was 3 or 4... "I've Found The Answer"... one of those Baptist church kid songs.
Did you come up Baptist?
Yeah... then we changed to a Lutheran church, which I'm very thankful for because of the musical heritage of the Lutheran tradition. So I was playing Martin Luther hymns on the organ because they didn't have an organist.
When did you start your band?
I started the band when I moved back to Arkansas, from being away for about 10 years.
Where were you?
I was all over the place. I went to school at OBU in Arkadelphia. And then I taught English and music in China. I had gone to China during my undergraduate studies because they have a foreign study program over there. I was close to Beijing... but after China I went to Australia for a while.
You came back from travelling...
Then I got accepted for grad school at UMKC Conservatory of Music in Kansas City. Got my master's degree there, and I studied in summers in Mexico because this women's council in Kansas City gave me a grant to go document folk songs in Wahaca, Mexico. It was beautiful and I loved the folk songs. Had a great time...
When I was done with grad school I moved to Columbia, Missouri. I got married... just sort of a starter-marriage, really.
I never got to the pro level of marriage...
That's where I started writing my opera... when I lived in Columbia.
What made you choose the story of Bill?
I was reading his autobiography and I ended up reading his mother's biography.
Miss Virginia was something else. We were drinkin' buddies back in my drinkin' years.
I wish I'd have known her. She's kind of my hero.
She was like the 'Unsinkable Molly Brown'... In your face, a heart of gold and a loud sense of humor. I always played her two favorite songs and her and her entire entourage would each tip me 5 bucks each time I'd play them.
What were her two favorite songs?
"Mr. Bojangles" - who she claimed to know personally, and Harry Chapin's song "Taxi." And they'd all stand up and hoist their drinks to the sky and sing the last line.
What is the last line?
"I go flyin' so high when I'm stoned... "
I wish I could have been there.
When she and her party walked in the club the place would just enchant with energy...
Bill must have gotten some of that charisma from her.
What intrigued me about the story was his words and his descriptions of his mother.
Exactly how she'd put on her make-up every morning, the entire ordeal, she'd drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and it was like a whole 45-minute ordeal. She'd tell him "This is my game-face and I'm going to conquer the world today." That just really hit home and I could see her doing it on a stage. It totally inspired me.
I set the story in 1959 so by that point he was 13 or 14. He was a big boy. They had this excellent singer/actor playing as Bill... and he was so good it made me cry each time I saw the performance.
Did each singer translate your songs the way you wanted?
Yeah... they all got the main gyst of it for sure and they sang the hell out of it. It's a different kind of opera. It is an opera - there are no spoken words, and it is a classical piece. A lot of people thought that since I'm a country singer too, that this was going to be some kind of honky-tonking presentation... sort of a country-style rock opera like Tommy... but it's not. I studied classical and I'm a huge fan of modern American art songs that don't really sound like country. So I think the average opera listeners it sounds pretty country, but to the non-opera it probably seems really classical piece.
So anyway, they really nailed it.
I wrote it so that it could be performed anywhere. A theatre. A bar. We did it at White Water Tavern and that was in 2011. We did 4 songs of the 17 in the thing. It was so fun. And it was wild.
They came from all over. We posted auditions this classical music forum and people came from Dallas and Atlanta and lots of places. I was truly amazed.
And the caliber of the musicians were astounding.
Well, Bonnie, Arkansas' love of good music is pretty famous. It's widely known that our musicians are as good as good gets, and musicians from other places tend to jump right into anything musical from Arkansas.
I know. And you're so right there.
On another note, you've been working on a CD release in the trio The Wildflowers. Tell me about that. When do you think it might be ready?
I want to get it done so fast. We're shooting for the Fall. There's not any Christmas songs on it, but there are some tunes that Mandy wrote that are pretty Christmassy so I'd like to have it out there before that season.
This guy who's helping us produce it has worked for HBO for 30 years and he kind of wants to make it more of a marketable project than anything else we've done.
Who all is in the band?
Me and Amy Garland, Mandy McBryde... Amy's husband Bart on drums, Nick Devlin on guitar, Brent LaBeau on bass, Geoff Robson on fiddle.
We just learned too that there's already a Wildflowers band out there, so we just changed it the The Wildflower Revue.
We play pretty often, but we've cut it down lately with all these other things going on. I know we're set to play Riverfest.
I'm trying to get my own album done too. I have all the songs and I'm ready.
My next question is just what do you do to keep busy? Good Heavens!
I teach some students at home too.
And I love to garden...
After this you're going to start working on your own record. With your local band or your Austin band?
Both, actually. They're both such incredible groups I plan to get the best musicians combined! We've got this Americana thing down and plan to capture it while it's hot. We've been honing it and on the road with it for two years.
Where all do you tour?
We toured to California and went up to New York... Birmingham and back... and I've done a lot of Austin-based shows and West Texas. When we went out to L.A., I learned that there's a whole honky-tonk scene there. We did really well out there.
Probably because you were more authentic than anyone in L.A. Do they realize that in Arkansas we tend to think L.A. means Lower Arkansas?
Yeah... and with Amy being from Louisiana we kid her for being from South of the Border...
Where are you recording?
Probably going to do it in Little Rock. Maybe Fellowship Hall with Jason Weinheimer again, and maybe with Barry Poynter. They are both so good.
Recording The Wildflowers poject at Barry Poynter's and Barry is wonderful.
For me it's a professional thing, but every woman who's worked with him think he's 'Wow!'
I think what these girls are noticing is that he's not always trying to bang 'em...
He's a true professional. Working with him is something of a dream. I trust him both personally and professionally. And I really like his ear. He knows exactly what he's doing.
How many songs do you think you've written outside of operas?
Probably about 50 or 60...
How many of those would you believe in?
About maybe 20 or so...
It's only subject to your imagination. I think you are a conduit through which God speaks to people.
I think musicians in general are a connection to something divine for sure. I wish more musicians knew that...
I believe that what I'm doing is a bit of a higher calling.
What is your next big thing personally?
Try to get these recordings made and then get back on the road to spread them as far as I can. And I just found out that OBU is planning to do a production of Billy Blythe this fall, and I'll probably play a part in the production.
That is way cool.
Did you ever send a copy of Billy Blythe to Bill Clinton?
No I haven't.
Well you should. I think he'd appreciate it.
Hey, if someone produced an opera about you wouldn't you like to have a copy?
Yes, I probably would... Bill Clinton amazes me. Having gone through all he has and to still have the capabilities he does blows my mind...
"The more you observe politics, the more you've got to admit that each party is worse than the other..."
— Will Rogers