By Mario Tarradell
If you know the music, you know the man. Americana singer-songwriter
Chris Knight's stories about Southern folks on the fringes of
society, his tales of desperate, downtrodden characters with a
penchant for trouble come from the pages of his past. They aren't
all true, the Kentucky native admits he makes them "more
interesting," but the inspiration is real. The 42-year-old
Knight lives about six miles outside of tiny mining town Slaughters,
Kentucky in a 40-acre piece of land that's 10 acres of pasture
and 30 of woods. "It's not really a farm," he says by
phone from his trailer home. "It's kind of growing wild.
I have a horse. But we don't do any farming, no crops."
He could, though, if he
wanted to. Knight has an agriculture degree from Western Kentucky
University and worked for the better part of a decade as a mine
reclamation inspector and as a miner's consultant. It was once
his job to make sure the land that was stripped of mines was properly
reclaimed and cultivated.
His mine work was history
soon as he snagged a publishing deal in Nashville. That led to
a recording contract with the reformed Decca Records, the label
that released his critically acclaimed 1998 debut, Chris Knight.
That album immediately established him as one of the brightest
new talents in the Americana world. He mixed the best of John
Prine and Steve Earle with a Southern gothic sensibility so raw
When Decca folded by the
end of the '90s, Knight eventually made his way to Dualtone Music
Group, the strong independent label that released 2001's A Pretty
Good Guy and the exceptional third album, The Jealous Kind, which
arrives in stores Sept. 23. Stark and sobering, country-rocking
and twang-filled, The Jealous Kind offers another batch of classic
Chris Knight tunes.
Q: Let's talk about "Carla
Came Home," the haunting song on The Jealous Kind about domestic
violence. Is it based on any kind of personal truth?
A: It started just with an idea that I had about a boy and his
older sister and maybe how things happen through his eyes. You
know how families all get together in Christmas and sometimes
they get in a big argument and things happen? I wanted to write
a song about something like that where some kind of trouble went
down on Christmas day. I'd be thinking about it for a couple of
Q: "Carla Came Home"
is just one example of your writing style. You tend to pen sobering
songs about people who make bad, frequently violent decisions
and how they must live with their choices. You also write about
struggling Southerners desperately searching for something better
- or at least stimulating. Where does the subject matter come
A: I don't really know how to put it into words. I didn't come
from a dysfunctional family or anything like that. We grew up
in the country and my family was real big, had a lot of cousins,
we all lived in the same area. I
just kind of write about what I know. I read about Warren Zevon
when he died and somebody asked him pretty much the same question
and he said that violence and the fear of violence and the fear
of death kind of informs his existence. He thought what he did
was kind of a more cheerful way of dealing with that. That hit
pretty close to home with me. I don't know really why I do that.
I relate somewhat to people in desperate situations doing what
they got to do to get...doing what they do and then living with
it. The living with it part is kind of what intrigues me.
Q: Have you ever found
yourself in any of those situations, no matter how trivial or
A: As far as minor to moderately serious scrapes with the law,
I know a little about that. Plus, the fact that I got three brothers
and we went to town on Saturday night and we didn't just go down
to the arcade. We just got
into whatever was at hand, whatever we could get away with. There
was nothing real serious. I got a younger brother and he was good
in sports but he didn't play in high school. His sport was fighting,
every weekend. Same with one of my older brothers. And I'd just
fight if I was drunk, things like that. We were all fairly straight
and we got through and everybody's doing fine now. Anybody you
talk to, you don't know what they've been
through or done or anything like that. You don't know the whole
story behind the person. And I just try to make the story a little
more interesting I guess.
Q: One more song on The
Jealous Kind we need to discuss, "Broken Plow," a heartbreaking
wake-up call about the plight of the farmer. The song tells us,
sadly, the reality of the small-time farmer.
A: I know families that went through some rough times and everybody
was pretty well informed about that with TV documentaries through
the years. I wrote "Broken Plow" right after I read
The Grapes of Wrath about ten years ago. It's pretty much the
same story line, the same characters. I wrote it right after I
read the book. I related to the characters in that. My granddaddy
and great granddaddies were all farmers and they had big farms
before the Depression, they just couldn't hang on to them. Yeah,
I know a little bit about it.
Q: Switching to the beginning
of your recording career, tell me about the frustration of getting
signed to Decca only to watch the label fold less then two years
A: They released the single "It Ain't Easy Being Me"
and we did a video on it. I think we could have made some headway
with that at country radio but right at the time that they put
the song out is when everything came down on Decca, that's when
Decca folded. They didn't have a chance to do anything with it
or mess it up. I feel like if Decca had stayed in business, we
would have made some headway with that song.
Q: Do you feel the honchos
at Decca understood what you were about as an artist? I imagine
producer Frank Liddell did.
A: A lot of them did, Frank did. I'm not really sure how a machine
like that works. A lot of what they did, they did great. I got
a whole lot of press and I got to tour with the record. That was
just step one. I got to play in
front of some pretty big acts and I got to headline some shows.
By the end of that I think I sold about 35,000 of those records.
That's not too bad for a start. It got my name out there and helped
me make another record and tour even more. They did great with
press. But I'm not sure really what they do. They get acts and
release singles and try to get it into some magazines and they
work the songs at radio. My songs would probably stick out like
a sore thumb at country radio. I remember hearing "It Ain't
Easy Being Me" back to back with a mainstream country artist
on country radio and I was embarrassed. I sounded like something
that crawled out from under a rock.
Q: So is Dualtone the
best place to be for you?
A: Yeah, I think so. I really can't say because it's only the
second label I've ever been on and there's always talk of playing
the game a little bit more, going to country radio, doing a little
more of an accessible record, a
more commercially accessible record. Just that kind of talk through
the years. Do we go for country radio? In between Decca and Dualtone
I didn't have a deal for a couple of years and we were just looking
and taking our
time. Two deals fell through, one with Arista and one with that
Gaylord label that never got off the ground. In the meantime,
me and my manager were talking to some major labels and we were
wondering should we go to an independent? I could have made an
album the next week after Decca cut me loose. But we took our
time. The thing about a major label is I might have gotten signed,
but then I'd have to get in line and they would put the record
out or not put the record out. I wanted to get out and play.
Q: Are you happy with
the way things have worked out with Dualtone?
A: It's been great. They sold some records on me and they concentrate
on selling records without mainstream airplay. They work every
day to try to find ways to do that, to build an audience for their
Q: What about the Americana
format? Is that just another marketing buzz word or do you feel
it's the best place to hang your hat?
A: It's all I've ever known since I've been putting records out.
I think there's work to be done there. You take the Dallas radio
stations. If I had several more markets like that, I would never
ever think about country
radio. I sell a lot of records just around Dallas alone, not to
mention Texas. That's mainly because of that radio station, KHYI-FM
(95.3). They latched on to my music from day one. They play it
a lot and that's why I can
go to Dallas and draw a good crowd just because of that radio
station right there. When I go to a place that has a good radio
station like that... I go to New Braunfels and I draw a lot of
people cause they got a good radio
station. I'd say that's where I need to be.
Q: Sounds like Texas
is where you need to be. Is this the state that has been most
receptive to your music?
A: Yes, without a doubt. A lot of people think I am from Texas,
a least people outside of Texas that keep up with music. A lot
of people that know I'm from Kentucky are in denial. I think they
know but they're just saying
he's got to be from Texas. I'm not going to ask him, I'm not going
to read anything. [He laughs loudly.]
Q: Well, you're about
to become an honorary Texan. Word has it you will be recognized
as an honorary Texan during one of your Poor David's Pub gigs
in Dallas Sept. 24 and 25.
A: I don't know anything about it. My manager has told me it's
going to happen so act surprised. I'm looking forward to it. I've
got a few markets outside of Texas that I can play and I draw
good crowds but Texas is the big thing for me. Texas likes me
and I like Texas. San Marcos is good, Austin is getting better.
I don't have a lot of rabid fans or anything there, but we keep
chipping away at it. I know I get some airplay down there. I also
have a decent core crowd in the towns in between. But Dallas and
New Braunfels are the biggest markets in Texas. Dallas is leading
the whole pack. I sell more records in Dallas than anywhere else
in the country. Amarillo is a good place, too. They've got a couple
of radio stations that play my songs. I can draw a real good crowd.
Q: One last question:
Is it important to you that your songs get covered by other artists?
John Anderson cut "It Ain't Easy Being Me" and Randy
Travis recorded "Highway Junkie." Then Montgomery Gentry
had a hit with your "She Couldn't Change Me." How did
you feel about those tunes?
A: I like it. I love John Anderson. I heard it on the radio a
couple of times. Even though the song didn't do anything commercially,
that's what I went to Nashville to do. To have somebody like John
Anderson cut your song, that's a good honor. I've had Randy Travis
cuts and that's a big thing. Those guys will be, if they aren't
already, country music legends and everybody knows them. Montgomery
Gentry, everybody knows them. People ask me who's recorded your
songs? When I tell them, 'Well, Randy Travis,' their mouths drop
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