October 24, 2019
Somewhere between the dark and the dawn, struggle and survival breathe the lyrics from and the voice of Chris Knight.
A beacon in times hard and not, Knight makes his Paramount Center for the Arts debut Saturday in Bristol, Tennessee. It’s an acoustic show. Neither drums nor clashing guitars to impede his lyrics, Knight’s sandpaper and kerosene vocals project all the more.
“I like doing acoustic shows a lot,” said Knight, by phone from his home in Kentucky. “The lyrics seem to stand out more.”
Knight’s journey through music spotlights an unlikely route. Drawn to the guitar as a teenager, the seeds of a dream began long before it matured to reality.
“From the first time I picked up a guitar, sitting on a living room couch at home, I could hardly put it down,” Knight said. “I played on a corner down at the bank in Seaver, Kentucky, at 11 o’clock at night. Played John Prine songs, Jackson Browne, Gordon Lightfoot songs. It ate me up.”
Knight believes in backup plans. He graduated college from Western Kentucky University with a degree in agriculture.
“Thought I was going to be a game warden,” he said. “I wound up as a mine reclamation inspector and then worked as a miner’s consultant.”
Despite that, music never diminished from Knight’s dreams. Instead, it flourished. By age 26, he started writing songs in earnest.
“Back then when I wasn’t writing anything worth keeping, there were some good ideas,” Knight said. “I felt good about it. I sent a lot of them to publishers in Nashville. I got a lot of handwritten notes back, saying they liked what I was doing. Keep going.”
Knight enjoyed his day job in the mines, but music gnawed at him with an undeniable fierceness.
“I was fine with my job,” he said, “but there was always something crawling up my back saying if you’re going to do it, then do it.”
In 1992, Knight did it. He went to Nashville, songs in hand, and consulted with producer Frank Liddell.
“He said, ‘You’ve got one song that’s finished. That was ‘If I Were You,’” Knight said. “I started playing more, writing more, meeting more songwriters, and I wrote quite a few more songs in the next year.”
Liddell eventually signed Knight to Decca Records. In 1998, they issued his major label debut, an eponymous album that garnered rave reviews.
Knight’s songs including “House and 90 Acres” sound like portraits, black and white depictions of humanity that look all the way to the soul. Sometimes they judge, most times they don’t. They simply project what’s there for all to see and some to feel.
“I’ll take that. I appreciate that,” Knight said. “Honesty, that’s what I try to do. I want them to be believable. When I play ‘Down the River,’ I want people to think I’ve killed somebody. You take on a persona to get them across.”
Snag Knight’s new album, “Almost Daylight.” He lived some though not all of the songs. An album of hope in darkened times, tunes including “The Damn Truth” witness Knight sifting through the rubble of today’s gristmill of misinformation.
“Why can’t they tell the truth?” Knight asked of today’s proprietors of news. “Why can’t we get a straight story? Report the news! I want to say, ‘Hey! Half the world has lost their mind. The other half is looking for a sign.”
Knight left Nashville and the major record label route in the late ’90s. He found his sign. For 20 years, he’s toured the country and made his own records while navigating his own way. Stardom appeals to some, but never to Knight.
“I just wanted to be a singer-songwriter,” Knight said. “I still don’t want to be a star.”