Don’t be surprised if someday one of Chris Knight’s songs is transformed into a movie script or a best-selling novel.
The 37-year-old singer-songwriter, whose self-titled debut album showcases his weathered voice and penchant for sobering storytelling, wants people to enjoy his music like a “book that they like to read.”
“I’m not trying to make anybody see anything different or be political or make people feel anything they don’t want to feel,” says the Kentucky native in his thick Southern accent. “I just want them to be entertained.”
So far, he’s earned plenty of critical attention. Since its release last month, Chris Knight has received kudos from Entertainment Weekly, Gavin and No Depression, the bible for the burgeoning Americana movement.
In 1998, when slick hat acts such as Tim McGraw, Garth Brooks and John Michael Montgomery rule the mainstream country radio airwaves, Mr. Knight’s stark, evocative tales of cops and prostitutes, murderers and homesick farmers don’t fit in with the format’s pop-sounding ruminations on love.
So Americana disc jockeys, unafraid to program artists whose music is rougher around the edges, have given Mr. Knight his break. He has two Dallas shows this weekend � Friday night at the new Snake River Saloon (formerly the Rehab Lounge) and Sunday afternoon at Southfork Ranch as part of a festival sponsored by Plano Americana station KHYI-FM (95.3.
“There’s a lot of good music getting heard that wouldn’t otherwise be heard,” says Mr. Knight about the Americans format. “I would like to be considered a country artist, but I leave it up to the people who hear it.”
One listen to Chris Knight and there’s no doubt this former mining consultant is a country artist. Blending the sneering grit of Steve Earle with the roots-rock sensibilities of early John Mellencamp and the raw emotional breadth of Johnny Cash, Mr. Knight’s songs are compelling, vignettes.
“I first started writing in ’86,” he says. “I heard Steve Earle. I’d been wanting to write songs for a good while but never really sat down and really tried to do it. There was a lot of good music on the radio at the time. Country music had Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle; Patty Loveless had just come out; Lyle Lovett was out there; Marty Stuart was starting out. They were really doing something different in country so I kind ,of wanted to be like that. That’s when I started writing songs and going out and playing live a little bit.” ..
Mr. Knight says it was Mr. Earle’s gutsy writing, particularly songs on the landmark Guitar Town,. that inspired him most. Although he admits there’s something autobiographical about all his tunes, Mr. Knight primarily makes up his scenarios. The CD’s standout track, “Love and a .45,” about the unorthodox relationship between a cop and a prostitute, is fiction.
“I’ve seen a few prostitutes,” he says, chuckling. “I had the title, it was given to me by someone else. They suggested I write a song to it. I never thought about doing anything with it, and one night I just came up with this story. I came up with a cop and a prostitute and some-how they- would get together. I wrote it with [Canadian singer-songwriter] Fred Eaglesmith the next day. That story just kind of came out of the air.”
“William,” the mournful acoustic tale of one hard-luck country boy\’s death during a hold-up, “is based on a couple of people,” he says. “It’s just kind of a composite of a few different people I’ve known. They didn’t have as much trouble as William did; they didn’t end up like William did. That was fictional, although I’m sure it’s happened.”
All the songs on Chris Knight date back to 1992, when Mr. Knight was writing in hopes of landing a publishing contract. He says he was writing for himself, “about stuff that interested me.” He took those tunes to a songwriters’ night audition at a Nashville club, made the cut, met Frank Liddell, then with Bluewater Music Corp., and landed his publishing deal.
Mr. Liddell soon left Bluewater for a lucrative artists-and-repertoire position with Decca Records, But they kept in touch. Mr. Liddell, who eventually co-produced Chris Knight, was instrumental in getting Mr. Knight his recordIng contract with the label.
“All I knew is I didn’t want to go somewhere where they would try to make me record other songs,” says Mr. Knight, who was granted creative freedom when he signed with Decca. “They, [Decca] probably recognized that I wouldn’t be a bit of good to them if they did try to change me. I was just determined that it be what it is.”
Now Mr. Knight is gearing up for life on the road. Although he\’s already performed a few shows in California, his tourIng picks up briskly after his Dallas gigs.
“I’m going to have to get out and play to sell the record,” he says. “I’ve got a band together. We’re getting ready to play about 10 shows this month, The plan Is for things to pick up from April on. That’s the main plan right there.”