Arkansas is lucky Bonnie Montgomery decided to come home. Few artists have the range of talent coupled with such dedication to their home state as she does — and this unique combo was on full display at her performance last night for AETN’s “On the Front Row” series. As Montgomery said herself, it was a night of firsts. It was the first time she’s given an operatic performance, decked out in a floor-length gown and accompanied on piano; then, switching gears and changing into gingham and cowboy boots, delivered a full set of her satisfyingly raucous folk-rock.
Charming the small crowd of 60 or so guests through the whole set, she cracked jokes, sang “Happy Birthday” to her Uncle Leon who was in attendance, and reveled in the fact that so many came “all the way to Conway” to see her play. With the support of her full band, Montgomery Trucking, she belted out songs driven by the Luther Perkins-style of her guitar player, chugging along in that 4/4 tempo, an almost indigenous sound to an Eastern Arkansan. Then she moved to the piano and captivated the room with her own unique style of tongue-in-cheek parlor ballads — songs that lament the slow pace of a new lover and the jet-lag induced “Beijing Blues.”
But the highlight of the evening was the aria Montgomery sang to open the show. It was the first time a piece from her opera, “Billy Blythe” — you’ve probably heard about it by now — has been performed in front of an audience. Singing as Virginia Blythe Clinton, the pres’ mom, Montgomery’s voice embodied the grief of a woman who’s lost her husband and the determination of a woman with a young son to raise. It was striking. And if it’s any indication of what’s to come when the opera makes its debut, a whole lot more folks outside of Arkansas are going to take notice of Montgomery. Until then, go see her play and go often and be proud she’s one of our own.
The broadcast of “AETN Presents: On the Front Row with Bonnie Montgomery and Montgomery Trucking” is scheduled for November.