Lonely & Gone: Troy Gentry Finds The Sky Too Soon

Nobody loved -- or lived -- life more than than Troy Gentry. Half of 1999 CMA Duo of the Year Montgomery Gentry, he was wild-eyed and willing to try anything; the duo's hard-charging country was meant for Saturday nights after a grueling week of physical work. No fear, great fun, always immersed in the moment, the father, husband, friend, showman died in a helicopter crash at 50.
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Las Vegas, Hear Me Crying

Las Vegas.

There are no words. I’m not even sure prayers, as I feel so raw and empty from all of it. Even growing up with pretty strong exposure to mental health care issues, I’m having a hard time even finding a frayed thread to hang onto.

Like Columbine…

like the slaughter in the Colorado movie theater…

like Sandy Hook…

like the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Cincinnati, Indiana…
like sleepy Chardon, Ohio…
like, like, like, like, like…
there is no explanation that begins to start explaining. No right words, no origination place to truly come to a start of “how.”

In a year that’s already been marked by much sadness, much indignation, much loss, much unthinkable tragedy, 22,000 people go to a country concert – and fifty are dead, two hundred injured. To have a fun night out? To throw your fist toward the sky, lean into a song and feel the freedom of what music does? 
There are no words.

How many times have I been clustered about a stage at Mandalay Bay? Or any number of places out in the wide open, out where people crowd together on an infield, an endzone? Watching the music, throwing myself over to what songs can do – heal, inspire incite dreams and serotonin. Music is a way to face the world, to be lifted up, to forget what pulls us under.

Now this? More than 50 dead. More than 400 injured. The numbers keep growing. Shot down from above, without a chance in the world. Not that a chance should even enter into it. Not like this, not there. Not for 22,000 people who came out on a Sunday night to have one last rush of songs and fun before their weekend closed.

There are no words.


Or reasons.

Stephen Paddock, 64, Semi-retired. Owned two small planes. Getting a divorce. Had a girlfriend. Sent his mother cookies. Liked burritos. It’s all out there, courtesy of the worldwide web. Google, and click, search, find. Piles and piles of facts.


So much to know: where he’s worked, what kinds of guns were in the room, how many. What property he’s owned. What was paid, what price it sold for. The fact he mad no military background, no political affiliation, no religious affiliation. “Just a guy hanging out,” his brother said.

Where are the words?

Eight or ten long range weapons. The thirty-second floor – a perfect overview of a bunch of people getting ready for the week or letting go of the weekend. “Night Train,”  “Hicktown,” “The Way I  Know,” “Amarillo Sky,” “Laughed Until We Cried,” “Gonna Know We Were Here,” “Tattoos on This Town,” “Big Green Tractor,” “She’s Country,” “Dirty Road Anthem,” all songs for working people for whom their life is enough. No violence, no disruption, no hate being sown.


And so. More than 50 lives are done. More than 500 injured, the new reports are saying.
There are no words.

In a world that loves recrimination, where Amendments and agendas tangle, pull, rub us raw, larger questions rise. The nation was built on the Second Amendment. NRA Country is part of how so many acts market their records, speak “to the base.”  Where do we draw the line?


I am haunted by a late night conversation with Eddie Montgomery, a man whose own life has been riddled with more tragedies than any one man should face, at the bar at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas over a decade ago. Him explaining to a city girl about country boys and guns:  “You respect them, Miss Holly. You know what they can do, and you treat them according to it. You keep’em up, or locked. You make sure your kids understand that they can kill, and they’re not toys. And when they’re old enough to hunt, you let them understand that, too.”


It echoed a conversation another ten years prior with Richard Young from the Kentucky Headhunters, an avid hunter who explained thinning herds keeps animals from starving to death during the winter. It seemed a less cruel way to avoid what might be inevitable. I didn’t know then.


Right now, I don’t know, either.

I can see the bumperstickers: When you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns.
I think about all the people I know who hunt – from Mr. Morton with his ducks when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade to Gary LeVox from Rascal Flatts. I know they’re not the problem, as it sets this morning.

And I know I do not know, beyond something has to change. Beyond turning away, beyond saying “it’s not my world,” beyond “this is an aberration.”

It’s funny, every time Country Radio Seminar would come around – and the vinyl NRA Country signs would go up along the big glass breezeway to the exhibit hall, my stomach would churn. I’d stand and stare and wonder, “What price marketing?” and “Do they understand how far this reaches, what all they’re really endorsing?”

It was never my place to say, and no one asked me. But standing here I wonder, as someone who evokes eye rolls and clenched teeth with all my annoying questions, where is the line? How honest do we want to be about the tremendous velocity of the world in which we live, our increasing numbness to other people’s states of heart and mind and the cruelty that passes for how we often treat each other?
I do not know. I do… not… know.
Except today in Las Vegas, 58 people, the number rises again, will not see another day… and the concentric rings of people who loved them, worked with them, shared families or children or laughs with them now have a hole torn in the fabric of their lives.
Except today in Las Vegas, 515+ people will have to begin recovering from profound injuries to their bodies. But also, their sense of safety in the world, their sense of how the live and work and breathe.

Except today in Vegas, 22,000 people will have varying amounts of trauma, of horrors, of things they can’t explain. Their sleep may be disrupted with cold sweats and flying awake, or nightmares they can’t pull themselves out of. Their life may be punctuated by shaking uncontrollably without knowing what triggered it, or losing their sense of place and time, or flashbacks from out of nowhere, but many of them will have landmines in their lives they don’t see coming,.

A few may be okay.  Just fine, absolutely perfect in spite of what they saw or heard. Grateful they got through it. Those are the blessed ones with no propensity for PTSD.  Or survivors’ guilt. God bless them.
And then there are the rest of us, who ride those highways, hang out backstage at those events. We know it’s not the norm. It doesn’t happen often, which is why I can’t turn away.  Because it did.

It’s more than our innocence. That was lost in Paris when the Bataclan was rushed, when that slaughter happened. It’s more than our whistling by the graveyard at this point, the club killing in Orlando showed that it can happen here.
Beyond unthinkable, it is. It just is.
Seeing the shooter, hearing his brother talk about him, my heart hurts. He looks like just another guy down the street: a nice older man who’d go to Spring Training games, maybe hold down a stool at the local bar talking life’n’sports with the other regulars, who’d take his grandkids to Chuck E Cheese – or in this case, out for burritos.

There are no words. Beyond – today -- telling someone you love much you care.


Eddie Montgomery Made Me Cry

The voice on the other end of the phone was thick. It was a mixture of a long afternoon of imbibing low rent liquor, watching the future melt into a promise of violence and upholding values few people ever truly inhabit, but mindlessly invoke to justify macho knee-jerk posturing and, well, the comradeship of the road. Behind the voice, the screen was a parade of talking heads tracking and trafficking the action, the fall-out and the impact of the US military strike against the Taliban, who'd blown-up America's blind faith in our safety being a God-given right. And the call to which the larger-than-life hillbilly singer was grappling was pretty standard issue in the world of the neo-famous. There was a request -- from the Associated Press' broadcast division for country music's names and faces to react and respond to our nation's actions. Eddie Montgomery, half of Montgomery Gentry -- the Lexington, Kentucky-based twosome that upended Brooks & Dunn's longest-winning streak in the history of the Country Music Association's annual Awards when they dark horsed their way into the 2000 Duo of the Year crown, was a logical voice to enlist. The last of the full-grown men in country music, he and his partner Troy Gentry sang about tattoos and scars, lost afternoons and shattered hearts, antique values and veterans who've grown battered by their forgotten role in the world. So one would think a jingoistic request to rah-rah the fighting men would be just the sort of siren song a good ole boy would live for. Bring it on, he'd beller from his bar-stool, let's whip the troops into a frenzy, create a nationalistic battle cry and show those freedom-hating so-and-sos the glory of God and ole glory. But Eddie Montgomery's having none of it at this moment. "What's the doctor saying?" he asks, voice thicker with worry than Beam-infused braggadocio. "When will you know something?" I, too, am on a barstool. Though my drink is water -- my doctor suggesting staying away from the hard stuff as the stitches inside me grapht a new seam to hold me together -- and my request is standard operating procedure as a publicist and apologist for some of the people whose music will no doubt become the soundtrack for the impending engagement. Indeed, Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" has been embraced as a song of healing and hope, a remembrance of what this way of life we fought for is made of -- and Brooks & Dunn's "Only In America," sung by vocal flamethrower Ronnie Dunn and written by Louisiana dervish Kix Brooks about the perils and promise of the American Dream, has turned into a self-esteem-steeped call to pride for country music fans that has more verve, more twist, more adrenaline-steeping pump than any latter-day USA-All-The-Way anthem out there. No, not for us the maudlin or the mawkish. We are the proud, the brave, the free. We want to be empowered and emboldened. We want to fly high and show the enemy who's the boss. But right now, my throat is tight. My client isn't so sure about jumping on the phone to tout his point-of-view. What he -- in all his imposing 6' 5" blackclad glory -- wants to know is what the doctor has to say. And as a tear rolls down my cheek, I have to confess that I don't know, won't know 'til midweek because of the legal holiday and the time it takes cells to germinate and generate in a petri dish in a sterile environment somewhere. Even worse, I have to confess that I'm afraid. Afraid of what I don't know -- since I am smart enough to know that whatever is is already. And there is no magic door or wand that can pass over me, taking it all back -- spinning the room, spinning the ugly reality through some fairy dust centrifugal forcefield through a time/space/gravity vortex and into the never was. No, I am afraid. And just as I can hear the Beam and Coors Lite in the client's lazy vowels, he can hear the tentative response, the not sure how much to tell, the not aware of what the most in-control person he knows is giving away in the pauses. "You know, baby doll, it's gonna be fine," he says with a split rail tone that is as solid as the 220 acres of hay he's just baled back home. "You're one of God's angels, and he's not ready to take you from us just yet." "Okay…" comes through the tightness and tentativeness, trying to sound appreciative, trying to ratify the faith that's being served. "No, no," he says. He feels the lack of faith, the tripping over one's confidence. "I mean it, you're one of God's angels here on earth. There ain't nothing wrong with you…just a little scare. There's too much for you to do, to give for this to be anything bad. I promise you: it's gonna be alright." Bad things don't happen to people like me. It's the lie we serve ourselves to fuse the teflon with the kryptonite, just as we don't look down or close our eyes when we must get through. We're pillars more than people, propping up, taking care of others. You need faith? I'll give you mine, You need vision? Look through my eyes. You need passion? I burn so other's can feel the fire and blaze in a way that draws moths to their flame. It is my gift. I am a woman who'd write"midwifing people's dreams" on the Occupation portion of applications. Though the straight world much prefers "Media Relations and Artist Development," as dubious and obscure an explanation as the aforementioned phrase. Having built a life knowing how to deal with anything -- malicious ex-husbands, tawdry inferences, partycentric lifestyles, life-shattering illnesses and a general lack of respect -- and corner with the fastest and bestest, there's a confidence that meets each morning. Bring it on. I am ready. I will make it happen, make it shine, make it sing. I believe in the power of music to imbue life with deeper meaning, to create context for my own unruly emotions, to inspire us all to be more, to reach higher, to believe in what can be rather than whatever mundane "is" may be this moment. Transformation and wings, joy and ache and surviving the devastation. The sketched lines of what we've been and what we wish to be… it's all there, if we'll just allow it to lift us up. Except right now. My resolve falters. I feel a fear that I can't walk through, can't talk through, can't quantify into something more manageable. There was a lump, missed because of thirty pounds of mental bondage and ice cream. Found in my yearly exam. Mammogrammed and ultra-sounded and appearing to be routinely out-of-order…. until the follow-up surgeon bypassed the needle core sample and went straight to the surgical biopsy. Not only straight to it, but straight to it less than 40 hours later. Suddenly the girl who handles everything wasn't so handled or heeled. Having picked up my "films" for the surgical consultation, the resolve had started oozing away -- and knowing a 6 a. m. check-in for a 7:30 cutting was imminent, I tried everything at my disposal. "As if" was enlisted and engaged. A black tie Hall of Fame induction dinner -- wearing floorlength black lace Chanel flapperish body-skimming lusciousness and punk funk hair in a confection of fashion and youthfusion -- where many's moment of glory was marred by timing seemed the perfect denial. Look as beautiful as one can, make the small talk about the big issues, sweep the room and ratify each other's glorious spot in the orbit of the right-now-country-kingdom, while being dwarfed by the accomplishments of the Delmore Brothers, Sam Phillips, Bill Anderson, Waylon Jennings, the Everlys, Don Gibson and the Louvins (among others) -- names that the young'uns and many of the midlevels couldn't explain with a sixshooter to the temple. Pretend it's just another glory night. Smile the smile. Push the food around the plate. Nod with recognition. Smile the smile. Sweep the doubts away. Bask in the plushness of Raul Malo's velour and cohiba voice as he works through a sampling of the inductees best known work. Find an escape. Perhaps have a meaningful exchange amongst the rubble of cocktail talk -- and keep smiling the smile. Smile that smile through the tears as the make-up comes off, the hair comes down and the fear wells back up. Breast cancer is more than pink ribbons and races for the cure. It is 192,000 new invasive cases this year. It is ads that are even found in Gentleman's Quarterly, invoking the real truth of the second most common form of cancer found in women in this country: daughters, sisters, mothers, friends, wives, grandmothers, fighters, survivors victors. But, me? It is a sqeaky voice that asks that question. One that knows the truth is larger than any spin that can be created, any reality that could be shaded. And the fear isn't the fear of failing the client, the song or the dream…. it is the bigger fear: leaving before whatever I've been sent here to do is done. It's not so much mortality -- though come on, who wants to be sick? Let alone sick in a way that could be fatal? -- than it is knowing how much time has been squandered, how little has been accomplished. We are put here to touch people's lives, to inspire, to comfort, to find our way and show others their's. What if I don't? As someone who works incessantly, who fights for the dreams of others, is it vanity or a personal quest? I'd like to think it's the former. And as Buddy and Julie Miller, paint-peeling ache intertwined with broken winged whisper, intertwine on "How She Cries" from their self-titled Hightone release, I ponder the point of it all. I am a true believer. I have to believe in whatever this is. But through the tears and the shaking and the pain and bandages of where they "got it," I'm not strong enough to get there on my own. In these lost hours, in a small apartment over an Italian restaurant on South County Road, I think about an overgrown cowboy and his simple assurance, about a hillbilly guitar slinger who talked me to sleep, about a good friend who shared a glass of cote du Rhone, an old beau who flew down to help pack an apartment so I could embark on what should be the next chapter, a babe-ular girl singer who sent flowers and prayers, a couple long distance calls from back home just to see how the baby rock critic was holding and e-mail to the doctor from a woman no less than TIME proclaimed, "sings the truth and serves it up raw." They say that you don't always get what you want, but sometimes you just might get what you need. As morning streaks across the Atlantic, with the tentative reach and brush of gray with perhaps a hint of warmth shot through, I believe that to be true. We may not always understand the difference between want and need -- just as fear and doubt sometimes blur into each other as a muddy confusion. But in this desolate moment, I see the difference: friends who reach out when you're too paralyzed to let them know you're in bigger need than you ever thought possible. The trouble with fear: you're afraid to voice it. If you tell, it will be become reality. So you suffer in silence. Or let a very few people know. And it grows inside you like a man-eating plant. In the immortal words of Emory Gordy, Junior: "Let your friends do the worrying. You should laugh and enjoy the drugs." It's not really that easy. Just like trusting that your friends can be what you need when it's all vastness and darkness and doubt. The irony, of course, is that they will be far more then you could ever need -- if you'll just let them. Tom Petty knew the waiting was the hardest part. What he missed were the everyday angels that carried you when you couldn't carry yourself. Maybe the answers aren't what you want, but what you learn is a gift that just may sustain no matter what. In a bleak whirl of doubt and heavy sighs, I'll take it.
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