This is how it happened: A stack of cassettes clattered onto whatever was between them and the floor, and so in the annoyance and the cleaning one finally slipped into the deck. Out of the speakers, then, came one of those shocks that happens…well, not often enough. Not very often at all. Almost never, in sad fact.
The song is titled “If I Were You”. The voice is solitary, unsanded, and an acoustic guitar tags along for comfort, but you don’t notice that much because it’s the song and the story being told that grabs you hard and fast, and there’s no solace in that. “If I Were You” is the elegantly rendered tale of a beggar with a gun, full of regret and resignation, honest and broken like a child’s eyes, hungry and unfed.
It is as striking as the night in 1989 when Lucinda Williams unleashed “Changed the Locks” to an indifferent crowd of Cowboy Junkies fans, and they all sat back down in their chairs and started looking to see what just hit them.
Nashville is overrun with cassettes, cracked plastic swapped at night among friends, the tacit understanding seeming to be: This is what we could do if things were different. And so one accumulates albums recorded in living rooms that no label will agree to release, or albums somebody paid for but lacks the courage or the interest or the faith to release, or albums recorded before the band broke up and so why bother? And songwriter’s tapes, one stacks them up. It’s a transitory kind of permanent record, the last refuge of music before it succumbs to memory and the musicians turn to fresher rainbows or minimum wage.
“If I Were You” is on a four-song demo, but it doesn’t take long to find out there’s more, and then a friend willing to dub a copy of the whole thing. Somebody’s named it The Trailer Tapes, and the shorthand description is that it’s what might have happened had Steve Earle cut Nebraska.
This, then, is how one stumbles upon a one-time strip mine reclamation inspector from Slaughters, Kentucky, named Chris Knight.
The elation of discovery is tempered by the logos on the tape and the dawning awareness that one has arrived late to a party that has been going for some time. That is, Knight has been driving down to songwriter nights in Nashville for most of this decade, has been signed first to a publishing deal, then to Decca, and his eponymous debut is scheduled for a February release.
And then there is this: “If I Were You” isn’t on that debut.
Lunch is early and Knight chose the spot, Brown’s Diner. Tables and cuisine from a family reunion, a big-screen TV in one corner, so much wear that the bar in back has accumulated character even if it still doesn’t precisely amount to style. A mile or so down West End, closer to Music Row, things get more decorous, but Brown’s is across from a 24-hour landromat, next to an army surplus store, and by that accident (if not the accommodating price of beer) has become a musician’s sanctuary.
Knight might pass for a better groomed Jay Farrar, perhaps a cousin. The geography almost works, for St. Louis is the nearest big city to where both grew up. Of average height, Knight carries the casual, stocky bulk of a working man, a physique tailored to labor all day and drink all night, if needed. And, like Farrar, Knight is miserly with his words; not unkindly so, just shy. Private.
Spooked, maybe, because the interview with another writer for his bio took eight hours and two days, and this is his first proper meeting with the press. Knight is so unaccustomed to the etiquette that he even picks up the check.
And remember, this is Nashville. Chris Knight is signed to a major label, and somehow is being allowed — encouraged, even — to release a debut album entirely of his own material. (Though, being Nashville, a fair number of the songs are co-writes, including cuts with Dean Miller and Fred Eaglesmith.)
“I’ve been writing songs for about ten years,” he says, not before his plate is clean. “And most everything I write — not everything I write — but all the stuff I write is just for myself. Nobody’s beating down my door to record my songs. So…I guess they just liked ‘em anyway. They liked the songs for some reason or other, and wanted me to record them. So I didn’t have to convince anybody.”
Thus revealing a curious mixture of confidence and indifference, and almost nothing. Knight doesn’t come from a particularly musical family, and yet knew somehow that he was good enough, that he should try. “I always had a job,” he says. “I never really wanted to be a bum on the street trying to get in the music business. I always had a job, and there’s always a side of me that was drawn to having a normal job. I got a day job and, you know, it wasn’t a bad deal.”
Not a bad deal, no, just not what he wanted to do. “Let’s see, January ’92 I came down here and auditioned at the Bluebird for the writer’s night, and they put me on the show,” he says. “I played like three songs. I have one song that still survives ["Framed"], and Frank Liddell really liked it a lot. I just talked to him a little bit. I came over and played some songs, and I just kinda started — it wasn’t really defined — working with him and the people at Blue Water Music Corporation, that’s my publishing company. And then Frank worked for Decca about the time I signed with Blue Water, and we kept working together.”
One song from that night is on Knight’s debut, and yet Frank Liddell, there by accident and only to see a friend from Austin, remembers this: “‘If I Were You’ is the first song I heard him play at the Bluebird. The reaction was amazing. When he sings that song people just react emotionally, they don’t react with their head.”
And so Liddell and Greg Droman, an engineer recently moved from Los Angeles, slowly began assembling what became Knight’s debut. It all sounds so easy, commonplace, even if it has taken five years.
“My deal was I stayed at home and wrote songs,” says Knight. “When I write songs, it’s almost like the best thing about the song is sitting and writing it, if I’m really into it. It’s kind of like the guys who write short stories or something; they sit around and drink whiskey and write short stories.”
Do you write prose?
Who do you read?
“Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry. I’ve read a lot of books, John Steinbeck…it’s kind of like after I read Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry or somebody like that I can’t read anything else.”
What is it you value about that writing?
“It’s just real.”
How much polishing do you do?
“I wouldn’t know how to go about polishing a song. I might say isn’t instead of ain’t. I might do that, that’s about all I know to do.”