A Gritty Thowback To Country’s Rural Roots-The New York Times

WHEN Chris Knight writes a song, something thing bad happens. It could be a broken heart or a destructive fire or a wife abandoning two kids and a good hus- band. A lot of times, it’s death. Most of the songs on “Chris Knight,” ‘ the most striking, confident debut to come out of Nashville in years, show lovers embittered by distance or loss. A rare happy relationship arises In “Love and a.45,” which finds a murdering cop settling down with an armed prostitute, a combination that doesn’t promise much peace.

“I don’t think I’ve mastered the upbeat, positive stuff,” Mr. Knight, a 37-year-old singer from western Kentucky, said recently during his first trip to New York. “Every time I write something like that, it has to have a fistfight in it. Or, I’m going to kick your ass for messin’ with my girlfriend. Those are my positive, uptempo songs.”

Though he may not have developed a soft touch, Mr. Knight (who performs at the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan on Thursday and Friday) has mastered the classic country song. In the 90’s, mainstream country has lost its rural roots; most songs might as well be set in mall food courts. The legacy of patriarchs like Johnny Cash, who sang about murdering a man “Just to watch him die,” returns in Mr. Knight’s songs, and his label, Decca Records, is struggling to find a niche for him. He writes flinty, vivid and often poetic stories of “wrong turns” taken by truck drivers, farmers, band leaders and rebel sons, the archetypal characters of a vanishing South.

Mr. Knight also seems like the last of a dying breed � a hard-nosed iconoclast, a taciturn loner who hunts on his own land, a grownup Huck Finn with an acoustic guitar as well as a college degree. He has an intense, dark-browed stare and arrived for lunch unshaven, in flannel and jeans. His wariness faded gradually, and sound too crazy,” he requested with a grin upon parting. He lives with his bird dog in a 1,100-square-foot trailer on 40 acres, most if it woods, in Slaughters, Ky., a tough mining town so small that his post office box number is 4. The obstacles he faced In venturing from there to Nashville reveal a lot about how country music works today.

Growing up in the 70’s, the son of a father who was a pipe liner and a mother who drove a school bus, Mr.Knight had little interest in country music, preferring eloquent singer-songwriters like John Prine and Jackson Browne, whose songs he learned to play on guitar. In the mid-80’s, country entered a wilderness stage, when young spirits like Patti Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle made their debuts. Mr. Knight loved their music, especially the ornery bravado, Mr. Earle gave to smalltown storytelling.

When Mr. Knight began to play his own songs in nearby clubs, his experiences were unpleasant. Singers like Garth Brooks paid dues by slipping original songs in among top hits of the day, but Mr. Knight wouldn’t compromise. “I never could get along with club owners,” he said. .”I\d probably have been better off playing covers. But I’m not really a businessman, so I don’t care.” People went to clubs mostly “to drink and dance and find somebody to take home,” he said, so he was often greeted with indifference or hostility. On one occasion, he punched out a persistent heckler.

With a degree in agriculture from Western Kentacky University, Mr. Knight worked as an inspector for the state, insuring that strip-mining companies minimized the environmental damage they caused. He wanted to get a record contract in Nashville, but didn’t know how to do it.

Mr. Earle’s 1986 debut album, “Guitar Town,” was “the best record I ever heard,” Mr. Knight said, so he began calling Tony Brown, an MCA Nashville executive who had produced the first albums by Mr. Earle, Mr. Lovett and Nanci Griffith. ” ‘What are you calling about?’ ” Mr. Knight recalled Mr. Brown\’s assistant asking. ” ‘I want a record contract,’ ” Mr. Knight would answer guilelessly. And without fail, he would be told dismissively that Mr. Brown was “very busy.”

In the summer of 1991, Mr. Knight drove the two hours to Nashville and auditioned at the Bluebird Cafe, the town’s top showcase for songwriters. He was given a slot but had to wait six months because of the abundant competition. He came down once more, to visit record companies, but learned that labels had policies against accepting unsolicited demo tapes. Then he quit visiting Nashville, not from discouragement, he said, but “because I wanted to get ready for deer season.

Industry people describe the showcases at the Bluebird as a cattle call, 40 songwriters show up to perform two songs each. “Ninety-nine percent of them are trying to write songs for Garth,” said Frank Liddell. 34, a music-publishing executive who had worked with budding Nashville songwriters like Kim Richey and Jim Lauderdale. Mr. Liddell said he had gone to the Bluebird the night of Mr. Knight’s debut to see another singer but “freaked out” over Mr. Knight when he played “Hello Ruby,” a song about a moonshine runner. A few years later, Mr. Liddell was hired as an executive at Decca, the sister label of MCA Nashville; he signed Mr. Knight and was co-producer of his album.

In hindsight, some Nashville executives wish now it had been they who had discovered Mr. Knight. “It’s a great record,” said Mr. Brown, now the president of MCA Nashville. With a rueful laugh, be added, “I wish I’d taken his calls.” With a distinctive voice, Mr. Knight writes about a farmer forced to sell off what he owns, In a song called “House and 90 Acres,” and a truck driver who exacts. vigilante justice on a cuckold, in “Framed.” “There is a right, and there is a wrong, and It doesn’t matter what the laws on the book say,” he de- clared during the lunch, In these songs, Mr. Knight builds stories out of life in his hometown.

The songs are “darker than anything out there” in current country, Mr. Liddell acknowledged, “because everybody else sings about being in love, and how the economy’s great – but it’s not great in Slaughters.”

Decca won’t have an easy time establishing Mr. Knight with country radio, a necessity for any Nashville act to thrive. Many of the singers Mr. Knight admires, the ones who vivified country in the mid-80’s, found radio unwelcoming to nonconformists; within a few years, Mr. Earle Mr. Lovett, Ms. Griffith and K. D. Lang gave up on making country records. Since then, country acts with even slight eccentricities have been more likely to appear on independent labels like Hightone in Oak,and, Calif., or E-Squared, a Nashville company that Mr. Earle created to promote artists like Bap Kennedy, a singer from Belfast, Ireland, whose lively first record of Celtic-touched country, “Domestic Blues,” shines with dark humor.

At first Decca planned to issue “Chris Knight” last October, but the label postponed its release, four months to devise, a marketing plan for Mr. Knight. Since February, there has been some solid airplay for “Framed,” the vigilante song, In Phoenix, Denver and Sacramento, markets that are strongholds of tradItional country music, though the consultants who program most country stations have been reluctant to commit to a song about lawless murder. Decca has worked on circumventing country radio by promoting “Chris Knight” to college radio and Americana and AAA stations, formats that feature rootsy artists like Bonnie Raitt and Son Volt, and by giving away CD samplers in book stores and coffee bars, whose clienteles might appreciate a pithy storyteller. Such “alternative marketing” Is routine in pop music but new to country labels, which are beholden to radio, despite his label\’s best attempts to integrate Mr. Knight, he Is still an uneasy outsider In Nashville. He has been back several times since his fateful first show at the Bluebird, but he hasn’t been able to visit the storied Country Music Hall of Fame. The $8 admission, he said, would cut into his beer money.