When comparing country singers such as Dolly Parton and Kenny Rodgers to R&B and pop artists like Brandy and Boyz II Men, it can be difficult to conceive how these contrasting music styles actually stem from similar origins.
When Gary Baker and Frank J. Myers wrote the song “I Swear”, country singer-songwriter John Michael Montgomery was the first to record and perform the piece, landing him a spot on the Billboard’s Top 100 songs.
It was only a few months later, however, that a soul-pop singing group covered the single and gave the song an entirely new identity. All-4-One, a male quartet, virtually made the song their own and earned themselves a spot as one of the most iconic singing groups of the 1990s.
This is not to say that Montgomery’s version was not well-received. Although the two versions of “I Swear” are noticeably different in regards to vocal technique and instrumentals, both display a competent level of soulfulness and convey the true meaning of the words to its listeners.
Country music is one of the few musical genres accredited to having white roots-- blues, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop are all traced back to African-American origins. Originally labeled as “hillbilly music”, its popularity grew rapidly after the second World War.
Although most of its original artists came from the South, the migration of white southerners to states such as Michigan, Ohio, and California aided in the spread of the demand for country records as well as its mainstreaming.
In adjusting to the honky-tonk milieu, country musicians made a number of changes in their performance practice. First, many of the old-time songs about family and the church seemed out of place in the new setting.
Musicians began to compose songs about aspects of life directly relevant to their patrons: family instability, the unpredictability of male-female relationships, the attractions and dangers of alcohol, and the importance of enjoying the present. (Starr & Waterman, 2006, p. 49)
These themes are evident in nearly all modern-day country songs, from Faith Hill’s “Cry” to Kenny Rodgers’ “Gamblin’ Man”. The way in which country music has evolved is consistent with all of today’s pop music. The original sound and vocal quality, however, has essentially remained the same.
One of country’s many talents, John Michael Montgomery first entered the music scene in 1992. A Kentucky-born singer and songwriter, he has frequented the top country charts both past and present, and prides himself on offering music that is innovative enough for today’s audiences, yet still holds genuine country music qualities. In an interview, he stated “I believe you can sing traditional music, you just need to make sure that the words and everything are up with today’s times” (Flippo, 1996, p. 9).
Perhaps it is this philosophy that has allowed Montgomery to span decades and produce hit country songs without necessarily crossing over to the pop charts-- and it is this accessibility that has made several of his songs prone to being covered by other artists of different genres.
With Baker and Myers’ song, “I Swear”, Montgomery takes otherwise conventional lyrics and interprets them with a strong country voice while backing it with traditional country instrumentals. The chorus contains the following lyrics:
I swear by the moon and the stars in the sky
I’ll be there
I swear like a shadow that’s by your side
I’ll be there
Sounding more like a contemporary pop ballad rather than a country song, it is rather impressive how Montgomery transforms the piece. The instrumentals on the track are considerably organic-- piano, drums, guitar, and light strings. Although the guitar is not acoustic and adds a rather electric sound to the song, it contains typical country rifts which is backed by a simple drum beat consisting of light cymbals at the beginning and end.
Montgomery’s voice itself provides the track with its final element of traditional country music. It is not only his southern accent that labels the song as “country”, but also his phrasing. He has a rich baritone chest voice, which he alternates with a softer level of singing-- not so much a head voice with an airy sound, but more like a change in volume that has the same support and intensity as his chest voice.
The purposeful breaks in his voice during the verses also serve to accentuate the feelings and emotions of the song, showing how simply altering the vocal styling of a piece can change it altogether.
All-4-One’s version of the song applies this same theory in order to take the track from a country love song to a soulful ballad.