Brianne Tracy
September 08, 2017 07:55 PM

As tributes pour in for Troy Gentry following his tragic death in a helicopter crash, one friend is remembering the Montgomery Gentry singer’s powerful presence both on and off the stage.

“Nobody loved life more than Troy Gentry,” music journalist and author Holly Gleason tells PEOPLE exclusively. “Whatever adventure, all night party or hardcore hillbilly song, he was up for it.”

Gleason, who did publicity for Gentry and bandmate Eddie Montgomery in the early 2000s, last saw her friend Sunday during the band’s set at the Tequila Bay Country Music Festival in Miami.

“He was on that stage, guitars blazing, trading vocals with his partner Eddie — and they made it feel like the biggest party in a place that knows how to party,” Gleason says. “Hot and sweltering as it was, the crowd was up, dancing and yowling and throwing down to ‘Hillbilly Shoes,’ ‘Gone’ and Charlie Daniels’ ‘All Night Long.'”

She adds: “That’s the thing about Troy, it was all in good fun. It all rocked, and it made people feel more dangerous than they were, yet somehow kept them safe as new kittens. To be able to walk that line, maybe it truly does take hillbilly shoes.”

The band confirmed in a statement posted to their Facebook page that Gentry was killed in a helicopter crash in Medford, New Jersey at approximately 1 p.m. on Friday at the age of 50. He leaves behind wife Angie and daughters Taylor and Kaylee. The platinum-selling duo was scheduled to perform later that night at the Flying W Airport & Resort in Medford.

Since first breaking onto the scene in 1999 with their debut album Tattoos & Scars, Montgomery Gentry has been representative of the working man with their blue-collar anthems that Montgomery has called “the good, the bad, the ugly and the party on the weekend.”

Montgomery Gentry’s newest album, Folks Like Us, embraces that same message with their songs “That’s Just Living” and “Better For It.”

“[Gentry] understood what it meant to entertain people who worked, and worked hard,” Gleason says. “When they took a stage, they took it. He spent as much time telling the crowd how much they loved them and inviting them to let their hair down as he did selling the duo’s songs.”

Life for the Montgomery Gentry duo wasn’t without it’s ups and downs in both their professional and personal lives, though. Their first record deal ended, but since then they made a home with Blaster Records. In 2010, a now-healthy Montgomery was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Gentry recently announced that his wife, Angie, is successfully undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

But through it all, Gleason says Gentry had a “smile that was blazing.”

“You could almost see it from the other side of the door, and he knew how to use it,” she continues. “Whether it was undoing some kind of annoyance for missing a call or making total strangers feel welcome, Troy understood the power of those pearly whites.”

One of country music’s most recognizable duos, Montgomery Gentry was nominated for a Grammy in 2008 and inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2009. Their music was far reaching, too — in 2007, Maya Angelou invited them to open for her when she played at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Though she recognized that the band was much different from her, she called them her “sons.”

“I reckon we’re like a married couple, sort of,” Montgomery said of more than 20 years together in a 2013 interview with the Des Moines Register. “You hear horror stories all the time about duos, but we’ve always just been friends having fun and making music.”

  • Reporting by CYNTHIA SANZ

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