Dan Montgomery figures he holds a distinction that no one else can claim.
"I'm the only person you've ever met that got clean from drugs by going on tour with a rock band," the 56-year-old roots-rocker — and Pennsauken High School graduate — says from his home in Memphis, where he has lived for 15 years.
Montgomery was referring to his five-year run in the late '80s as soundman and road manager for the band led by fellow Camden Countian Ben Vaughn. The group, he says, didn't usually indulge in anything much harder than beer.
It was that experience, however, following some aimless post-high school years, that put Montgomery on the winding path (including a late-'90s relapse) to what he is today: a superb singer and songwriter with a string of excellent albums to his credit.
The latest and best is Gone, released on his own Fantastic Yes label. The 10-song set finds Montgomery setting his downbeat-as-usual songs to the fiercest and most authoritative rocking of his career.
"I don't intend to write only sad songs," says the twice-divorced singer, who does lead off the album with the positive "Getting Up." "I think when you're in a really good mood, you don't want to take the time to stop and try to rhyme things."
As it happened, the songs for Gone were recorded around the time Montgomery got his electric guitar out of hock.
"So that had a lot [more] to do with how it turned out musically than anything else," he says. "It was like a natural reflex: 'Oh, my Les Paul Jr. is back. Let's have some fun.' "
Not that it's all loud and up-tempo. "Look at Us Now" is a classic-sounding honky-tonk duet with Candace Maché, the harmony singer in his band. "What Am I Here For?" is an exquisitely hangdog slice of country-soul à la Dan Penn, and "A Little Tear" is a poignantly philosophical acoustic ballad that recalls John Prine.
Sharing the road duties with Montgomery back in those days with the Ben Vaughn Combo was Greg Harris, cofounder of the Philadelphia Record Exchange and now the president and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
"He has a terrific personal ability to connect through his songs," Harris says by phone from Cleveland. "He really captures emotion in his songs. This new record, to be honest, blew me away … and the root of that is just great writing."
For Harris, Montgomery brings to mind such artists as Chuck Prophet and Steve Earle, and another who, like Earle, is from Texas:
"Jon Dee Graham was the musician of the year for Austin for many, many years, and he has the ability to do rockers and those great ballads as well that are real emotional, and he's a celebrated songwriter," Harris says. "This record, I feel, gives Dan that same vibe and credibility.
"Philly always has a combination of great soul and great heart, and that comes through on this record, by way of Memphis."
Needless to say, Montgomery has come a long way from his post-Vaughn days in the '90s playing in such Philly-area bands as Drugs Before Breakfast and Del Pez. He is pretty well settled in Memphis, where he has a full-time job in the cafeteria of a local hospital ("I'm a really hairy, ugly lunch lady").
"One thing about Memphis," he says, "you can come here at any time in your life, and any age, and if you declare yourself an artist … people will say, 'OK, show me what you got.' And if you have something of worth, they'll respect you for it."
His homecoming show Friday night at World Cafe Live will include some connections to his past. Mike Vogelmann, of the Ben Vaughn Combo, is playing bass in his touring band, and the group will be augmented for this show by Vaughn accompanists Gus Cordovox on accordion and C.C. Crabtree on sax. That will give him a seven-piece ensemble, including his regular guitarist, Robert Maché, a veteran of Steve Wynn and the Continental Drifters.
For Montgomery, that's as good as it gets.
"I don't have, financially, a thriving musical career, but I have really great people that love to play with me."