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, Ky., on 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, though, as 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 and passionate.
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 solid batch of classic Chris Knight tunes.
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?
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 been thinking about it for a couple of years.
“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 from?
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.
Have you ever found yourself in any of those situations, no matter how trivial or grave?
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.
One more song on The Jealous Kind we need to discuss, “Broken Plow,” is a heartbreaking wake-up call about the plight of the farmer. The song tells us, sadly, the reality of the small-time farmer.
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 10 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.
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 later.
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.
Do you feel the honchos at Decca understood what you were about as an artist? I imagine producer Frank Liddell did.
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.
So is Dualtone the best place to be for you?
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.
Are you happy with the way things have worked out with Dualtone?
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 artists.
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?
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.
Sounds like Texas is where you need to be. Is this the state that has been most receptive to your music?
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.” [Laughs]
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.
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.
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?
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 open.