August 1, 2006

Great country-rock storytelling, straight outta Chris Knight’s truck

Chris KnightChris Knight’s coming by Uncle Pleasant’s Friday, just after the release of Enough Rope, his fourth album. This collection of 12 tunes is a remarkable step forward for the Slaughters (in Webster County) native who’s already distinguished himself with many memorable story-songs and ballads. The typical subject of a Knight ballad might be a misbegotten soul who barely makes it through poverty and wild livin’. In a good percentage of Knight’s body of work, this soul — or someone he runs into — doesn’t survive to the end of the song. Recent songs have a lower body count, but also more startling changes. It’s a rare feat when the gradual change of give-and-take between honky-tonk temptation and family-oriented satisfaction is written and sung with such plainspoken honesty. Knight knows that maturing isn’t a matter of throwing a sudden switch, and he just might be rocking harder than ever.It’s not that his lyrics are specifically going soft: not when a doctor hands a needle and thread to a barfighter and tells him to go stitch himself up if he gets cut up again (in “Jack Blue”). The sort of mind that knows how to put such a moment into a song — it makes one wonder where Knight learned so much about the violent side of hard-scrabble rural life.By phone he answered that where he grew up, “we went to town on a Saturday night. I heard a lot of stories from my grandparents, and … I’ve got a large family. There are bits of my younger life, and then I embellished.” On his new album, the embellishment is weaved better than ever into a mature storytelling style that doesn’t feel out of place alongside his earlier material — as is demonstrated by “William’s Son,” a new song that’s a sequel to the haunting acoustic life-portrait “William” that closed Knight’s first album. The idea to follow through to the next generation of that family came to him “one night driving back from Nashville … about two or three years ago … and I pretty much had it written by the time I was home. You know, the same thing happened when I wrote “William” — I was driving back from Nashville. You got time to think and you don’t need to write it down.”The two-hour drive to Slaughters seems to work well as a starting point for songwriting. Knight also likes to go out on his deck if he can get out there early enough, but the truck has unique charms — witness how the lyrics to “Becky’s Bible” began when empty beer bottles started clattering against an old pistol Knight had on the seat.That pistol more easily fit into Knight’s tracks of eight years ago than, say, the new friend-but-not-lover anthem “Cry Lonely.” Or “Dirt,” which joins John Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow” and Steve Earle’s “The Rain Came Down” as great mournful odes to the loss of family farms. But when asked whether he sees himself hewing toward murder ballads again in the future, he doubts it and then adds, “That’s pretty much the way it ought to be. You don’t want to be scuffling when you’re 35 or 40. I can’t necessarily write from the perspective of a kid anymore. I could for years … I had a youth where I was angry, and I built up a lot of stories. And so songs like ‘Framed’ or ‘Down the River’ worked. I did those songs and did that fairly well. I feel like I can’t keep coming up with songs like that, so now there are songs like ‘Jack Blue.’”I’ll start by saying this: All Aboard, the debut record from Louisville’s Code Red, is an excellent album. It bounces like any fine hip-hop record will, but there’s considerably more here than riffs for dancing. Code Red doesn’t fall victim to the all-too-typical hard-ass bullshit that turns off casual listeners of the genre. These guys don’t pretend to be what they’re not, and that’s refreshing in a Nappy Roots sorta way.Further, the music is packed with messages, and not the kind that make young men buy weapons and women stick fingers down their throats. A particularly poignant one is “Give Me A Reason,” a third-person account of a soldier’s life. Again, it’s real: El One Wise and Junior Dread, the founding members of Code Red, have both done time in the service. Check ’em out live at Felt Lounge this weekend. If you can’t, pick up this album. A gem-to-be. —Stephen GeorgeContact the writers at leobeat@leoweekly.com