“In Coal Country, Knight Discovered Gold On Vinyl” by Jack W. Hill

LITTLE ROCK – Chris Knight is a roots rock country sort of a singer-songwriter, but it took him a while to figure out that was his destiny. He had earned a college degree in agriculture at Western Kentucky University and then spent a decade as a mine reclamation inspector and a miner’s consultant while living in Slaughters, Ky., near where he was raised.

Having grown up in coal mining country, Knight considers himself lucky that he had an older brother who got a good job working in the mines.

“He suddenly was making a lot of money, and he bought a big Pioneer stereo and a lot of albums,” Knight says. “He had albums by the Allman Brothers Band, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, John Prine and so on. He got a lot of progressive country kind of artists, such as Dan Fogelberg, Jackson Browne, Jonathan Edwards, J.J. Cale, the Charlie Daniels Band and Barefoot Jerry, and I started trying to learn to play acoustic guitar by observing closely what I was hearing and trying to get that sound out of my guitar.

“I tell people that John Prine taught me how to play guitar,” Knight says with a laugh, “because I was listening to all his songs on the turntable, picking up the needle and moving it back while I figured out how to play the notes.”

Knight, whose rough-hewn voice has been compared to those of Prine, Johnny Cash and Steve Earle, was 32 before he decided music was more important to him than mines. By then he had a family and 40 acres that he still lives on. By then, no one was advising him to seek his fortune by moving to Nashville, Tenn.

“I’ve got some timber, and I saw some logs, and have 10 acres in pasture,” he says. “If I had any money, I’d become a farmer so I could slowly go broke.”

In 1998, Decca Records released Knight’s debut, self-titled album. His second album, A Pretty Good Guy, came out on an historic day, Sept. 11, 2001. His new album, Little Victories, his eighth CD, will also be released on Sept. 11 this year. It’s a coincidental occurrence, Knight says. He’s not much for talking politics, but the first song on the new album, “In the Mean Time,” suggests that people might want to grow a garden in the event the government does not save them in the “mean time” while they’re waiting for the good times.

Knight recalls an ice storm a couple of years ago that had the town surviving without electricity for about a month. The experience brought home to Knight that coal is likely to remain an important part of the nation’s future.

“I don’t think I’d be called an environmentalist as much as I’m a conservationist,” he says. “It’s a memorable experience when you flip a switch and the lights don’t come on. I’d love to see an alternative to coal, but we can’t put solar panels all over the country, just like electric cars won’t take the place of oil.”

Knight has written or cowritten songs that have been recorded by Blake Shelton, John Anderson, Jason McCoy, Fred Eaglesmith, Gary Allan, Randy Travis, Ty Herndon and Montgomery Gentry.

The new album’s producer, Ray Kennedy, heard something in the title cut, ‘Little Victories,’ that compelled him to send the song to Prine, who liked it enough to add his distinctive vocals to the song. While Knight was pleased to have one of his earliest musical heroes singing on the new album, it didn’t compare to an actual experience with Prine in a live setting.

“One of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me was when I got to open a couple of shows for John in the Northeast,” he says. “And John called me up to sing with him on his song, ‘Paradise,’ which is about Kentucky anyway, and he let me play that blonde guitar of his that’s on his album where he’s sitting on a bale of hay.

“When he sang on my album, he just stopped by the studio in Nashville when he was out running errands.”