Chris Knight

Chris Knight doesn’t like to say much. Won’t chat about his worldview or engage in conversations on his creative approach. For 15 years, 7 acclaimed albums and a hard-nosed career that’s been hailed as “where Cormac McCarthy meets Copperhead Road”, Knight has always let his music do most of the talking. And on record – as well everywhere across America, from roadhouse taverns to major-city concert halls – his songs have had plenty to say. But with his new album Little Victories, Chris Knight has taken the discussion to a whole new level.

His first album of new material in 4 years, Little Victories is a record of blunt honesty, elegiac truths and the raw rural poetry of an artist who’s come into his own and intends to stay. And for a performer who’s been compared over the years to Cash, Prine, Earle and Nebraska-era Springsteen, Knight now stands alone as a singer/songwriter that has carved his own idiosyncratic sound and sensibility out of the dirt road American dream. Little Victories not only sounds like a Chris Knight album, but the best Chris Knight album yet.

“I don’t ever get in a big rush about things,” Knight says. “I can tour pretty good on what I got. I took my time, like I always do. Write a song every now and then. I don’t like to talk about politics, but I do write what I’m thinking about.” And if many of the songs on Little Victories seem to take a hard-eyed look at the current socio-economic climate, Knight – the former strip-mine inspector who still lives in the backcountry coal town of Slaughters, Kentucky (population 200) where he was raised – is upfront about their origins. “About 2 years ago, we had a big ice storm here in Slaughters that just devastated the whole area,” he says. “We were out of power for close to a month, cooking in the fireplace and living by candlelight to survive. Things slowed down to nothing. When we were finally able to head into town, we saw lines of cars for miles outside the gas station. There were hundreds of people outside the hardware store who had nothing even before the storm hit. They weren’t prepared for the situation or for each other. I watched their behavior and reactions, and that’s when I started writing a bunch of songs I knew would be a part of this record.”

Little Victories also marks a reunion with producer Ray Kennedy, who’d engineered and mastered Knight’s seminal Enough Rope and two Trailer Tapes albums and is well known for his work with Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, John Mellencamp and Lucinda Williams. “Chris wanted to make this record with his road band,” explains Kennedy. “And as we were tracking in the studio, the sounds I was sending back through the headphones were pretty tough and edgy. It made everybody crank their amps up higher and dig a little deeper. The sound of any record is about attitude and how it goes down, and much of this record went down like a rock record. Other than a few overdubs, it’s pretty much recorded 100% live.” This organic approach gives the album an acoustic/electric texture that is both urgently gritty and fiercely expressive, with Knight’s twang-rich vocals to match. “Chris digs deepest of all on this record,” Kennedy says. “It’s the content of his voice as well as the character of the songs. And when you listen to this record a few times, you realize there’s a really unique social commentary woven in. I think he’s one of our greatest songwriters, period.”

The album’s 11 songs purely rank among Knight’s finest. There’s busted luck in “Lowdown Ramblin’ Blues”, hardcore tenacity in “Nothing On Me” and badtempered love in “You Lie When You Call My Name” (co-written with two-time Grammy winner Lee Ann Womack). Buddy Miller provides guest vocals on the ominous commentary of “In The Mean Time” and the ornery regret of “Missing You”. “Jack Loved Jesse” is a raging tale of criminal destiny co-written and featuring blistering electric guitar and vocals by former Georgia Satellite and frequent Knight producer Dan Baird. “You Can’t Trust No One” emerges as an unsettling paean to small-town American cynicism and anger, and “The Lonesome Way” is a gut-punch of slide-guitar, violin (courtesy Tammy Rogers of The Steeldrivers, who appears throughout the album) and bullheaded regret. The humble acoustic remorse of “Out Of This Hole” is Knight at his most plaintive, and the crushed dreams of “Hard Edges” carry a banjo-tinged melancholy. And if the title track not only finds Knight at his most cheerily optimistic (for Chris, at least), it also features vocals from his lifelong musical hero John Prine. “When I was 16, I got a John Prine songbook and learned about 40 of his songs,” Knight explains. “Used to play them for the kids in study hall at school every day. About 20 years later, I finally got to meet him when I opened a few shows for him. He asked me to come out and sing “Paradise” as part of his encore, and I got to play the blonde Martin guitar that was on the cover of his first album. I sent him “Little Victories” and he liked the song enough to be on it.” Chris treasures the moment when the two first listened to the playback of their distinctive twangs rasping joyfully together on the chorus. “‘Prine turned to me and said, ‘We sound pretty good together. Just like Phil and Don Everly.’”

So after 15 years, 8 albums and a still uncompromised reputation as one of the best singer/songwriters in America, what has Chris Knight learned from it all? “I’ve learned that I’m pretty lucky to do what I do and make a living at it,” he says. “I’m really proud of this record, and it’ll be fun to play these songs live. For people who like my music and maybe even for someone hearing me for the first time, I think they’ll find songs on here that mean something to them and they can hang on to. I don’t want to talk about it too much, but I think people are gonna be surprised.” And for Chris Knight, that’s victory enough.

American Aquarium

For nearly a decade, American Aquarium have spent the majority of their days on the road, burning through a sprawl of highways during the day and playing hours of raw, rootsy rock & roll at night. Sometimes, the job is a grind. Most times, it's a blessing. American Aquarium's songs, filled with biographical lyrics about last calls, lost love and long horizons, have always explored both sides of that divide. For every drunken night at the bar, there's a hangover in the morning. For every new relationship, there's the chance of a broken heart. It's that kind of honesty — that sort of balance — that makes the band's newest album, Wolves, their strongest release to date.

And it nearly didn't happen. When American Aquarium traveled to Muscle Shoals to record Burn.Flicker.Die. in 2012, they were convinced the album would be their last. Even though they had enlisted the help of award-winning singer-songwriter Jason Isbell to produce the sessions, they were exhausted; weathered and whittled to the bone by more than a half-decade of heavy partying and heavier touring. To a small group of diehard fans, they were absolute rockstars… but being rockstars to a cult audience doesn't always put food on your table or gas in your tank. BJ Barham, the band's frontman, was so poor that he'd been living out of a storage unit for months, unable to afford an apartment in the band's hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina.

Clearly, something had to give. Maybe it was time to make one final album — an album about failure, desperation and disillusionment — and then throw in the towel.

As fate would have it, Burn.Flicker.Die. eventually proved itself to be the band’s most successful release to date. Critics loved it. Fans rallied behind it. Fast forward 2 years and almost 500 shows later, the band has travelled the world, quadrupled their fan base and reinvented their passion for the road. When the time came to record another album in June 2014, it only made sense to do something that celebrated survival rather than failure.

The result? Wolves, which Barham describes as "the sound of a band firing on all cylinders". Produced by Megafaun's Brad Cook and recorded during a 20-day stay at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, NC, Wolves was funded entirely by American Aquarium’s diehard fanbase. The album’s 10 tracks represent a departure from the band’s signature twang. Instead drawing more from the alternative rock sound that inspired their name almost a decade ago. Wolves blends the twang of the pedal steel with the dark, dirty swirl of two electric guitars, creating a sound that's fit for the roadhouse, the honky tonk and the dive bar. Barham has certainly spent time in all three, but now looks to brighter horizons in these new songs.

"I've always written about being the drunk guy at the bar at 2 a.m.," he admits. "I've written about the pick-up lines and the drinking and the drugs. This record is more personal than that. It's a coming of age record."

It's also a record that reaffirms his faith in American Aquarium, a band he started in 2006. Since that time, more than 25 musicians have passed through the group's ranks. In recent years though, things have felt a lot more stable. Ryan Johnson, Bill Corbin, Whit Wright, Kevin McClain and the newest addition, Colin Dimeo, round out the group, turning Barham's songs into fiery, fleshed-out compositions.

With Wolves, which hits stores February 3, 2015, American Aquarium is literally bigger and better.

"We were legitimized by Burn.Flicker.Die.," Barham says. "That album was a breakup record with the road. It basically said, 'This is our last album, this is why we're quitting, and hey, thanks for the memories.' Fast-forward to 2014, though, and we're making a new record that says, 'We ain't done yet.'"

“Put a country song on the radio none of that fake shit give me something old and point me down a country road, uhuh.”

So starts the second verse of Ben Knight’s song Take Me Somewhere on his first EP and his first serious recording; and that line says a lot about the CD. In this five song collection “Dog Days”, Ben sticks mostly to folk and blues in style. His subject matter covers trailers, prescription pills, love, science and God. But this isn’t radio country, something he obviously abhors. If you had to label it you would probably say Alt. Country or Americana whatever that means. The truth is Ben listens/has listened to everything from old time to indie rock to hip/hop. This is 2011 and the time for crossover is ripe, the internet and radio are saturated with music and you there are few musicians writing in a cave.

Hailing from Dixon, Kentucky (pop. 700ish) Ben could definitely be pegged as a country boy. He sings likes he talks with a heavy west KY accent. He plays acoustic, often finger picking. True to form he even has a family history of country music. His uncle, Chris Knight has won himself considerable fame over the last 15 years as a songwriter and because of his particular fame in Texas, was named an "Honorary Texan" by Texas Governor Rick Perry.[1]

It’s obvious that Ben could choose to go down the same road as his uncle. Roseanne follows Johnny, and Justin follows Steve who followed Townes, and I don’t even need to mention Hank Williams 3 and the Damn Band to tell you this music runs in people’s blood, like alcoholism, addiction, and depression. Country music is in Ben Knight’s blood. What’s in his head and heart may be different.

Dog Days, produced by Dan Conn in a home studio somewhere in rural KY, is a songwriter’s album. It’s lyrically driven, tasteful, interesting, and intelligent. He writes like an English major and sings like a hillbilly and maybe that’s the best thing of all. Anyone who knows Ben personally knows these songs are only a glimpse of his repertoire. Writing constantly he could have a different set list anytime you see him play out which you can do most frequently in Louisville KY.

I think the only drawback to this record is the problem with all acoustic guitar records: It’s a little slow and a little quiet. The song “Hammerdropper” could have used a rhythm section while “Araminta” could have used a string section, etc. I look forward to future records with fuller and thicker arrangements. But maybe he needs a few more fans to show before that happens. Check out his Facebook account and download his album, “Dog Days” at http://benknight.bandcamp.com

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