It’s Labor Day and I just finished watching Billy Bob Thorton’s contemporary Southern Gothic film Slingblade, so I believe I’m in the perfect frame of mind to review a Chris Knight album.
Knight storytelling style reflects John Prine (who he studied when learning the craft of songwriting) and Steve Earle (who he’s most often inaccurately compared to.) His narrative thumbnail sketches are small-towns inhabited by country folks swinging from grinding poverty, break-breaking work and menacing fun and lawlessness (and sometimes all in the same song.)
Knight is writing his life. Growing up in the western Kentucky mining town of Slaughters he was able to stay out of the mines by getting a degree in agriculture from Western Kentucky University. But he did end up spending time on the business side by working nearly ten years as a mine reclamation inspector and as a miner’s consultant.
The Trailer Tapes II is a 44 minute companion to 2007’s The Trailer Tapes. The full session was recorded as stripped down kitchen table demos in 1996 with just Knight and his acoustic guitar, two years before Knight’s Decca debut, by producer Frank Liddell in the singer/songwriter’s single-wide trailer in Kentucky. Unlike its predecessor Trailer Tapes II is mostly comprised of songs that later appeared on official Knight studio releases, but the similarities between the two is the like raw emotion of the performances by a man thta doesn’t need any fancy studio wizardry to spin gold.
Old Man, which turned up on 2006’s Enough Rope, is Knight’s version of Cats in the Cradle. A son’s life journey turns back toward his land as well as toward his checkered and violent heritage. It Ain’t Easy Being Me, later on 1998’s self-titled debut, has Knight crooning forcefully of self-loathing but never self-pity.
Highway Junkie, later on 2001’s A Pretty Good Guy is a raucous road song and Knight spits gravel befitting the story. The excellent Love and a .45 sounds better stripped down then the already well performed verion on the self-titled debut.
Fans will be familiar with the rest of the cuts. Bring the Harvest Home, Summer of ’75, and The River’s Own from the self-titled debut. Send a Boat from A Pretty Good Guy, all benefit from the less-is-more approach, along with the unreleased I’ll Be There and Speeding Train and Till My Leavin’s Through.
The first time I saw Knight perform it was a cold December night and he played in the basement performance space of New York City’s Knitting Factory. A man with only his acoustic Gibson guitar, and one man backing on guitar, spun dark gems and kept the city crowd rapt in silence for nearly two hours. This is that man in all his brilliant, simple, glory. (release September 15)