Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties: John Michael Montgomery, “Friends”


John Michael Montgomery

Written by Jerry Holland

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

January 10, 1997

John Michael Montgomery earns the first No. 1 of 1997.

The Road to No. 1

After “Long as I Live” went No. 1, Atlantic previewed John Michael Montgomery’s fourth studio album with “Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Us,” which surprisingly underperformed by only going top fifteen.  Montgomery rebounded with the next two singles from What I Do the Best, which both went to No. 1.

The No. 1

“Friends” is one of the best songs that John Michael Montgomery ever recorded.

It’s a poignant ballad that explores the classic “let them down easy” breakup line: “Let’s just be friends.”

As Montgomery notes, “that’s a newly sharpened blade.”  Friends drift apart, lose touch over time, and at best, give you a call every now and then.

They rarely have the same bond as an intimate loving partnership. Indeed, it is when people commit to such partnerships that friends lose much of their currency and significance.

In that sense, it’s crueler to be demoted to “just a friend” than it is to be let go of completely.  Who needs a view from the bleachers of the person who has moved on and is with someone new?

The production holds the record back a little bit. The tempo is slightly too slow, and it forces Montgomery to elongate some vowels to detrimental effect.

But it’s still his best record in quite some time, and its follow up chart-topper is even better.

The Road From No. 1

As noted above, Montgomery will repeat at No. 1 with his next single, which features a rare co-write from Montgomery himself.

“Friends” gets a B+.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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  1. What I Do The Best is one of JMM’s best albums, imo, and it’s one of my personal favorites of his. Much like Travis Tritt with The Restless Kind, Montgomery also took a much needed change in direction with his 1996 release. What I Do The Best is the most traditional sounding album he put out since his debut, and I especially love Csaba Petocz’s smooth, clean, and classy production on it, which has aged very well. The song quality is also a lot higher and more consistent on this record, as well, imo.

    “Friends” is such a beautiful, heartbreaking ballad, and it’s definitely a welcome change from the standard wedding/love ballads he was previously having success with. It’s personally one of my all time favorite songs of his, and it’s such a shame it’s become quite forgotten in more recent years. You pretty much nailed what makes it so sad lyrically: That it’s even more painful to watch a loved one who was once such a big part of your world move on to a life with someone else than it is to just not have that person in your life anymore. A chapter full of pain and a season full of rain, indeed. Another part that really hits me when listening to it now is: What’s a love without desire, a flame without a fire? It can’t warm me late at night when I need you most.” From experience, having someone you still really love and care about not being able to be there for you when you need them the most is really the worst. Montgomery does a great job of emoting the sadness of the lyrics, and he even gets to use that Keith Whitley like lower register that we haven’t heard as much since his first album. I also love the production, especially the quiet opening with little more than piano and guitar backing up Montgomery as he sings the first verses. I also love the beautiful crying steel guitar throughout the second verse. Finally, I just love how the song ends with the killer final lines that pretty much say it all: “Darling can’t you see? This is killing me. We could never be just friends.” Oh, and once again, this was a PERFECT choice as a Fall/Winter single. I especially enjoy hearing it on a rainy day during the cooler months. :)

    Again, it’s hard to believe looking back, that it was only in late 96/early 97 that you could still turn on the radio and regularly hear great songs like this that were about real human emotions from relatable, real life situations. A far cry from the “Look at how much of a macho redneck I am” type of country that still makes up a lot of modern day country radio playlists. I liked this song back when it was new, but sadly, it’s one that pretty much disappeared from our stations shortly after the chart run was over (Unfortunately, that also went for the rest of the What I Do The Best singles). I fully got to appreciate it when I picked up this album in the early 00’s, and as I was on a mid 90’s country kick from around 2008-2009, it really became one of my favorites and one I loved hearing every time it came on my ipod.

    I also love the album’s lead single, “Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Us,” which is such a fun swinging number, and another nice departure, sonically, for Montgomery. It actually used to remind me a little of “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” from Toy Story, lol. I also love Montgomery’s playful delivery on that one where he humorously exaggerates his southern drawl in certain places.

    I also love the next single coming up after this, and it looks like we’re gonna be very much in agreement with it.

    Other songs from What I Do The Best that I love are “A Few Cents Short” (which Montgomery wrote by himself before getting his record deal), “Lucky Arms,” “Cloud 8,” “What I Do The Best,” “I Can Prove You Wrong,” and the underrated (imo) “How Was I To Know,” which is another track that saw him doing something a bit different sonically AND stretching himself vocally by making good use of his falsetto, which had never been heard from him until then.

  2. This song basically got me through the late 2000s, with lost/unrequited love and all the life changes that came with graduating college. In my top 5 of the 1990s for sure.

  3. Montgomery got hold of a great song, one full of poetry and sincerity. He honours the song well and delivers his best ballad performance. I have never been a fan of Montgomery’s music but I will champion this single.

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