Chris Knight - Kentucky straight
There's a guy in an office on Music Row, the kind of office you can find all over Nashville -- album covers and promotional posters on the walls, a conference table with enough room for artists and managers and label reps and everybody's lawyers, just down from the ASCAP building and streets named for Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins. And this guy, he's sitting at a desk, with one foot propped up, leaning back casually in his chair. He's wearing cowboy boots and jeans and a blue button-down work shirt with the sleeves rolled up around his beefy biceps. His hair is dark brown, shaggy and tousled. You can find guys like this all over Nashville, too. Or at least guys who look like this. But take another look at those boots. They're creaky and dusty. The jeans are faded, but not faded enough to be hip, just dulled to a huckleberry matte by time and Tide. The work shirt is not some mall-store piece of blue-collar chic. It's just a work shirt. And the hair is tousled because Chris Knight woke up early this morning to drive down here from his home outside of Slaughters, Kentucky, where he lives with his wife and daughter. Authenticity is a dangerous measuring stick for artists, being both difficult to define and often, in music especially, largely beside the point. Still, it's hard not to call Chris Knight "authentic." He dresses and talks and writes and sings like exactly what he is: a guy from small-town Western Kentucky who grew up listening to music, and found in it a way to talk about his life and his world and the people that populate both. His second album, A Pretty Good Guy, delves even deeper into that world than his 1998 self-titled debut did. Like that album, which produced a flurry of accolades and comparisons to Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen, the new one is a collection of short stories and character sketches, drawn in details so sharp they can hurt. "I'm not sure that was the eleven best songs I had," he says, in a husky drawl punctuated by searching silences. "I'm not sure. But I liked the way they fit together. They all kind of come from the same place. To me, they tell a story." They do. A Pretty Good Guy is almost a working-class Spoon River Anthology, a study in miniature of misdirected lives and transgressions both forgiven and otherwise. The teenage boys who drink cheap beer and goad each other into fistfights in "Oil Patch Town" aren't really looking for trouble, but somewhere down the line they could easily turn into the reckless card-game shooter of "Becky's Bible" or the vengeful killer of "Down The River". Even if they get the girl and get out of town, like in "Hard Candy", they could still wind up alone and putting the pieces back together like the narrator of the title track (one of two songs on the album Knight co-wrote with Fred Eaglesmith). Producer Dan Baird, former Georgia Satellite and alt-Nashville fixture, puts it this way: "What we decided was the 'pretty good guy' should be able to fit into all these songs. The pretty good guy, he's very plain and very understated about a lot of things. And if you know Chris at all, you know he bears a strong resemblance to that guy." In general, you would not want to be stuck in one of his stories. The new album is even darker and starker than the first one, retrieving a handful of tracks ("If I Were You", "Send A Boat", "Blame Me") from the Trailer Tapes demo sessions that first created a buzz about Knight in the mid-'90s. In eleven tracks, there are four shootings, four deaths, two armed robberies, two divorces, and assorted boozing, brawling and bootlegging. "They're people at a crisis point," Baird says, putting it mildly. "They're just living their life and get caught up in whatever's happening, I guess," Knight says. "I don't think that is just specific to certain areas. A lot of that stuff is pretty universal." Still, there's no denying the sense of place that permeates Knight's music. It's one thing that sets it apart, especially in the landscape of current American music. In this era of boy bands and e-commerce, it's hard to remember that just 15 years ago, artists such as Springsteen and John Mellencamp were topping the charts with songs about people who worked lousy jobs for little pay and worried about losing their house or farm or wife and kids. Those people are still there. But even mainstream country music seems to have forgotten them, heading to the suburbs along with everyone else and leaving the small towns and factories behind. Knight doesn't make a big deal about his subject matter. His songs are deliberately narrow and personal in focus, psychological rather than sociopolitical. The overall effect, however, is an amplification of lives and voices that are otherwise being drowned out. The ongoing commercial question, the one most roots-rock and alt-country practitioners are tired of answering, is whether there's a way for this music to get heard by mass audiences anymore. Knight's first album was on Decca, which tried to pitch him as far into the mainstream as it could. There was a single aimed at country radio ("It Ain't Easy Being Me") and a video on CMT. But in the midst of the promotional cycle, Decca went through a corporate reshuffling. In what has pretty much become a music industry rite of passage for anyone who releases more than one album, Knight was soon without a home. "It was hard sometimes, just the waiting," he says. "But I kept writing songs the whole time. It was like we would get on something where, 'OK, we're talking to these people, and they're interested in signing you,' and I'd go with that for about three or four months. And then that wouldn't happen, so there'd be a little down time. Then somebody else would be biting. So a lot of that time was spent looking forward to something that never did happen." It's a feeling the protagonists in Knight's songs would know well. But Knight, who was 37 when his first album came out and is now 41, kept plugging away and eventually landed at the nascent Dualtone label. Founded by former Arista-Austin executives Dan Herrington and Scott Robinson, Dualtone clearly is aiming to attract artists burned by the endless rounds of corporate mergers and acquisitions; besides Knight, early signees include Jim Lauderdale and Radney Foster. When it finally came time to head to the studio earlier this year, Knight already had Baird in mind as a producer. The two met during one of Knight's first writers-in-the-round sessions at the Nashville nightclub 12th & Porter, when Baird heard him sing "William". The song, which wound up being the closing track on Knight's debut album, is an unsentimental narrative about a boyhood friend from an abusive family who might have "had a heart of gold" but winds up dead in a shootout anyway. "By the time I got my jaw off the ground, he did a couple other songs, and I was just going, 'Oh my God,'" Baird says. "I went up to him and told him I liked him a bunch." They hit it off and spent some time writing together. Baird quickly learned to respect, and accept, Knight's judgment. "I wrote a line that was OK, not great, but it was OK," Baird says. "Chris sang it and just looked up at me and said, 'Naaaaw.' And that was just it...He has a very strong sense of what's right and wrong." Baird returned the honest appraisal when Knight's first album came out. "There was a couple places I thought it didn't quite capture Chris, and I was probably stupid and opened my big mouth," Baird says. "And he didn't hit me." "I just called him up, see if he wanted to produce," Knight says with a slight shrug. Sonically, A Pretty Good Guy is rougher around the edges than the debut, less refined but more restrained. There are only a couple of rave-ups in the set, and even they carry a sense of foreboding. A couple of songs give prominence to Tammy Rogers' brooding viola and violin, and "If I Were You" -- a quietly menacing monologue in which a man on the street goes from begging for change to pulling a gun -- strips it all the way down to Knight and his guitar. "This one's sparser, a little dirtier," Knight says of the album. "I don't think it rocks as much as the first one." For his part, Baird says he mostly tried to keep the band (including bassist Keith Christopher and drummer Greg Morrow, as well as Baird himself on lead guitar) out of the way of the songs. "I wanted everybody to be able to listen and hear all the words he was saying and chew on what he just said," Baird explains. It can make for harrowing listening. Consider that "If I Were You" is followed by "North Dakota", a tragic tale of a badlands farmer who loses his wife in a blizzard. Next up is "Highway Junkie", a trucker's lament about a bitter divorce, and then "Blame Me", in which an absent husband's neglect (emotional and financial) drives his wife to commit robbery and murder. Whew. In concert, Knight promises to "mix them up." "This album does have a beat," he insists. "There's a thing in the middle that I deliberately did, I come off of 'Oil Patch Town,' and then I did 'Hard Candy', and started going down to..." he pauses, and then decides he doesn't need to complete the sentence. Down to wherever it is his characters go, wherever he goes to write the songs. "And I stayed down there for a long time, like four songs. I was a little bit worried about it, but that's where I wanted it. "But 'The Lord's Highway' rocks a bit, 'Becky's Bible', 'Highway Junkie'. I can throw in stuff off my other album and keep people from slittin' their throat, cuttin' their wrists in the audience." He laughs. "Right at the last minute, maybe." And then there's the title track. Eaglesmith has been performing the song in concert for the last few years, and the differences between their versions highlight the things that set them apart. In Eaglesmith's rendition, the narrator sounds almost cheerful, reminding his ex of everything good she left behind, confident about his future. Knight's bare-bones Kentucky growl puts a different, more hard-won spin on it. He's not just trying to convince his departed lover that he's "a pretty good guy" -- he's trying to convince himself, too. Considering the widespread acclaim and relatively strong sales Knight generated the first time out, expectations for A Pretty Good Guy could be daunting. Knight seems unfazed. "I'll just keep on, see what I can do on the next album," he says. "I don't know. I'm not expecting anything. I got some shows, I'm working on getting a tour together. I'm not one to get my hopes up unrealistically. "I know what I feel about the album, just like I knew what I felt about my first one. At this point, my mind can't be changed. I respect anybody's opinion. But I know what I've done here, for myself." What he's done means more than just recording this album. Knight could have just been another character in his songs, a good ol' boy punching the clock and paying for diapers and beer at the Sav-A-Lot. His father was a pipe liner, and even though Knight and his brothers went to college, they didn't wander far afield. Knight majored in agriculture at Western Kentucky University, then went to work for Kentucky's Department of Surface Mining, supervising mine operations and cleanups. His brothers all still live nearby; a sister has moved to northern Kentucky, near Cincinnati. But Knight always had other inclinations. He taught himself to play guitar with a book of John Prine songs. He told his father apologetically that he wasn't sure he wanted just an eight-hour-a-day job. His parents, he says, have always been supportive. "They really encouraged it. I played the guitar all night long. They'd be in the next room. They never said, 'Put it up.'" And when he heard Steve Earle's Guitar Town, he knew for sure what he wanted to do. In Earle's unadorned lyricism, he found the same thing he admired in his favorite writers, authors such as Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy: the rough details of life, familiar pictures of the real world. "Some of the simplest things in Cormac McCarthy's books just make the hair stand up on my head because he delivers it," Knight says. "He sets it up and he delivers the line so well. It's placement or something." Knight has adopted some of that delivery and made it his own. His sparse lyrics don't overwhelm you with imagery and metaphor the way McCarthy's prose can, but they share a similar specificity and precision. "Becky's Bible", the first track on A Pretty Good Guy, opens with the immaculately descriptive line, "Empty beer bottles rattle on my pistol/On the seat of my Chevy pickup truck." "People have told me for seven or eight years that I write songs from the middle or from the ending," he says. "Maybe the standard way to write songs is from the beginning to the end. I figured 'Empty beer bottles rattle on my pistol' might get somebody's attention, you know? Instead of, 'Well, we were sitting at a card game and so-and-so said I was cheating and we pulled our guns.'" Knight thinks just as hard about how the stories end. And for all its blood and grim desperation, A Pretty Good Guy manages to wind up on a note of hard-earned redemption. The narrator of "The Lord's Highway" tells us he "used to burn the devil's gasoline" and "pack an old switchblade," but he has seen the light. The last words on the album: "I will not fear no fires of hell/When I'm on my dying bed/'Cause St. Peter's at the pearly gate/Saying traveler come ahead/You're on the Lord's highway." "That's the only hope anyway," Knight says matter-of-factly. "For anything. These people, they can come right out of everything they've gone through and be fine." Don't consider him an evangelist, though, or even a man of religion. "I am somewhere," he says slowly. "But not...I don't feel like I'm a good person. That's something I want to be, I would like to be. Maybe I will be. There was a lot of religion, my mother and father went to church, took us to church, all that. My dad, he's come back to it. They did their job. But it's just like the working thing -- it's there, I just don't know how it all fits in. I go back and forth between being an irresponsible musician to trying to be like the daddy in To Kill A Mockingbird. He pauses, one of those long pauses. "I've got to find my own way instead of just dressing different, cutting my hair and shaving every day and going to church every Sunday," he says. "It's got to be kind of a natural thing for me." Jesse Fox Mayshark was raised by Buddhist vegetarian war resistors in the vineyards of western New York. He currently subsists on moonshine and barbecued tofu in Knoxville, Tennessee.