The Murray Bar in rural Livingston, Mont., attracts a variety of patrons: local artists, visiting fly fishermen-and lately, a Grammy-winning rock star. Such was the scene on a recent Saturday, when John Mayer strolled in for a late-night visit. “He was real low-key,” recalls Jesse Dunn, who was onstage at the time with his band Dead Winter Carpenters. “He was checking out the music, talking to people and just hanging.”

On another night, Mayer, 34, might have hopped onstage for a tune or two. But not these days-in fact, he won’t be singing in front of a crowd anytime soon. Last fall he underwent surgery to remove a nodule on his vocal cords. It seemed at first to be a success, but in March he revealed in a blog post that he’d suffered a recurrence and was canceling his spring tour. “I’m completely bummed,” wrote the singer, who last fall had quietly quit L.A. and found a rural hideaway outside of Bozeman, Mont., where he could focus on music-and his recovery. Gearing up for a second surgery later this year, Mayer has left the comfort of his new home to promote his well-reviewed new album Born and Raised and to meet fans at listening sessions. For a guy who communicates through songs, just chatting has been challenging. As he said at an event on May 10, “It’s extremely uncomfortable being onstage in front of people and not playing.”

Music-or even his voice-aren’t the only things on his mind. He’s also been talking about how he’s changed over the past two years. Recalling the shocking statements he made about ex-girlfriend Jessica Simpson, 31, to Playboy in 2010, he explained to NPR’s All Things Considered, “I didn’t want to be boring.” Today the singer has also said he’s no longer “stupid,” adding, “I was 28 for four years.” Now, he says, “I just feel this capacity to love and to be happier.”

He began that soul-searching journey last fall while on two weeks of complete vocal rest. He often sent “deep” e-mails to friends and took road trips. “You just can’t stop enjoying life,” said the singer, who fell for Montana during a visit with pals. As for why Mayer chose to settle in Big Sky country, his manager Michael McDonald says, “He was looking to make a home, not a place where he throws down his luggage and crashes.” He’s even learned how to fly-fish. “He’s getting to be good,” says McDonald.

Mayer’s new laid-back lifestyle will be ideal for his next recovery period (which would take six months). “Doctors have said, ‘You just have to live like a monk,'” cracked the singer, who is looking forward to using the time to create new music. Notes McDonald: “No one’s worried about him not being able to sing again.” Mayer included: “I’m in a really beautiful place.”

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