With his 1992 double-platinum debut, Life's a Dance, neo-honky-tonker John Michael Montgomery may have simply copied his idols -- Hank Williams Sr., Merle Haggard, Garth Brooks -- but he did it with wit and style. By the time he released the triple-platinum Kickin' It Up in 1994, however, he was a ballad-loving cog in the music-biz machine, churning out what consultants correctly promised would be radio hits.
Now comes his weakest offering, JOHN MICHAEL MONTGOMERY (Atlantic). Ballads like ''Long As I Live'' have none of the epic sweep of ''I Swear,'' which won a Grammy. And the rhythm numbers -- including the bluegrassy ''Sold,'' in which he goes to an auction and ends up ''bidding'' on a lady -- are so blatantly sexist and contrived as to seem from another era. ''I'm the real thing, and I sing songs about real life,'' Montgomery boasts on ''It's What I Am.'' Chalk up another fantasy to country's mishandled poster boy of the moment. C