Former George Jones songwriter left fame behind

 

Earl "Peanutt" Montgomery is the gatekeeper to three decades' worth of garage sales.

VHS tapes? He's got 'em.

"I Heart Orlando" visors? He's your guy.

A purple-covered computer with a matching purple bear? He's secured that treasure, too.

Welcome to Hobbyland, Montgomery's Sheffield store - a pack rat's nirvana.

But there is a history behind the guy selling those aged prom dresses and greeting cards.

He's penned more than 70 songs for country legend George Jones.

"People here have no idea what I've done," Montgomery said, pointing to a handbill he shared with Roy Orbison for a Shoals show.

"I think they leave surprised when they find out my history."

Montgomery crossed paths with Jones in the early 1960s, when his sister, Melba, sang a duet with Jones, nicknamed "The Possum." The two got to talking and Jones asked him to be a songwriter.

That kick-started a 20-year run in which Montgomery wrote 72 songs for Jones, including the No. 1 hit, "We're Gonna Hold On" - the duet he performed with Tammy Wynette.

He also wrote for Tanya Tucker, Emmylou Harris, David Houston and Roy Head, among others.

"I studied him," Montgomery said of Jones. "I studied his style. And I studied his phrasing. I wrote the kind of songs he liked."

Montgomery said he wrote more songs for Jones than anyone else - "honky tonk songs, cheating songs, she's ran off and left me and all that stuff."

Art mirrored real life.

Jones was a "ticking time bomb," Montgomery remembered. At first it was booze, but that snowballed into cocaine.

One day, Montgomery said, Jones rolled up in a Thunderbird with blue leather interior so lined with cocaine that Montgomery bought it to keep it away from Jones. When he tried to sell it a few years later, he couldn't cleanse the ride of the white powder.

And after another bender, the country star shot at him, Montgomery contends.

Jones, himself, doesn't hide his wild background.

He candidly recounted his life of song, booze, women and drugs in his 1997 memoir, "I Lived to Tell it All."

Montgomery said he went from drinking buddy to proselytizer. And Jones didn't like that too much.

Montgomery's newfound religion halted the trips to Vegas, the cruises and the lifestyle devoted to little more than music and partying.

It also put the brakes on his writing career.

"I couldn't live that life no more," he said. "I couldn't do that and then try to preach to people. It wouldn't be right."

Instead, he became a traveling minister, "saving souls" throughout the Southeast.

Montgomery does not track how many people he's baptized.

Clad in a Hawaiian shirt and Harley hat, gazing over his store, Montgomery still doesn't know how his talent emerged.

He remembered the days he popped popcorn at the Shoals Theatre, during which his posse would retreat to the balcony to strum songs.

"I don't even know how to write," he said. "I don't even know how to write a song. I don't know how to sit down and start a song. I really don't."

Part of it, he guesses, is that he keeps it simple and doesn't write over anyone's head.

He still writes but hasn't produced a chart-topper in years.

His sister, Melba, said he just has a "natural gift that can't be taught."

The 68-year-old broke into impromptu song, slowly strumming his guitar and trying to hold back a wide grin:

"My friend came home from the war. He knew the price he had paid. He keeps saying his toes are itching, but my best friend has no legs. And I tell him, why that's just those old phantom pains. I've had them since she left me here alone. And we both can tell, it hurts like hell, after the feeling is gone."

Montgomery doesn't speak with Jones too often these days.

Seemingly straight out of a country song, the two grew apart after Jones divorced his wife's sister.

"His new wife doesn't like him associating with us anymore," said Charlene, Montgomery's wife.

Jones is all over Hobbyland, though, at least in imagery.

"He's a little fella, look at that," Montgomery said, gazing at a suit jacket Jones wore for an album cover shoot.

Keepsakes such as these provide unparalleled fodder for customers, he added.

Melba said there is a reason her brother remains somewhat of an unknown.

"We don't flaunt it," she said in a phone interview. "We never did. We never acted like we were big artists. I didn't; he's pretty much that way, too."

But she added that he hasn't received the recognition he deserves.

Now he builds computers, rides Harleys, preaches and even hosts wrestling practices.

It's not how he imagined his life would turn out back when he was playing Robin to Jones' Batman.

Yet, he's satisfied with his palace of hand-me-downs.

"I look back and I miss a lot of that," he said.

"But I don't know ... if I pass away today, I've had a very rewarding life and a full life."

Brian Hughes can be reached at 740-5720 or brian.hughes@TimesDaily.com.

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