There’s a guy in an office on Music Row, the kind of office you can find all over Nashville — album covers and promotional posters on the walls, a conference table with enough room for artists and managers and label reps and everybody’s lawyers, just down from the ASCAP building and streets named for Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins. And this guy, he’s sitting at a desk, with one foot propped up, leaning back casually in his chair. He’s wearing cowboy boots and jeans and a blue button-down work shirt with the sleeves rolled up around his beefy biceps. His hair is dark brown, shaggy and tousled.
You can find guys like this all over Nashville, too. Or at least guys who look like this. But take another look at those boots. They’re creaky and dusty. The jeans are faded, but not faded enough to be hip, just dulled to a huckleberry matte by time and Tide. The work shirt is not some mall-store piece of blue-collar chic. It’s just a work shirt. And the hair is tousled because Chris Knight woke up early this morning to drive down here from his home outside of Slaughters, Kentucky, where he lives with his wife and daughter.
Authenticity is a dangerous measuring stick for artists, being both difficult to define and often, in music especially, largely beside the point. Still, it’s hard not to call Chris Knight “authentic.” He dresses and talks and writes and sings like exactly what he is: a guy from small-town Western Kentucky who grew up listening to music, and found in it a way to talk about his life and his world and the people that populate both.
His second album, A Pretty Good Guy, delves even deeper into that world than his 1998 self-titled debut did. Like that album, which produced a flurry of accolades and comparisons to Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen, the new one is a collection of short stories and character sketches, drawn in details so sharp they can hurt.
“I’m not sure that was the eleven best songs I had,” he says, in a husky drawl punctuated by searching silences. “I’m not sure. But I liked the way they fit together. They all kind of come from the same place. To me, they tell a story.”
They do. A Pretty Good Guy is almost a working-class Spoon River Anthology, a study in miniature of misdirected lives and transgressions both forgiven and otherwise. The teenage boys who drink cheap beer and goad each other into fistfights in “Oil Patch Town” aren’t really looking for trouble, but somewhere down the line they could easily turn into the reckless card-game shooter of “Becky’s Bible” or the vengeful killer of “Down The River”. Even if they get the girl and get out of town, like in “Hard Candy”, they could still wind up alone and putting the pieces back together like the narrator of the title track (one of two songs on the album Knight co-wrote with Fred Eaglesmith).
Producer Dan Baird, former Georgia Satellite and alt-Nashville fixture, puts it this way: “What we decided was the ‘pretty good guy’ should be able to fit into all these songs. The pretty good guy, he’s very plain and very understated about a lot of things. And if you know Chris at all, you know he bears a strong resemblance to that guy.”
In general, you would not want to be stuck in one of his stories. The new album is even darker and starker than the first one, retrieving a handful of tracks (“If I Were You”, “Send A Boat”, “Blame Me”) from the Trailer Tapes demo sessions that first created a buzz about Knight in the mid-’90s. In eleven tracks, there are four shootings, four deaths, two armed robberies, two divorces, and assorted boozing, brawling and bootlegging. “They’re people at a crisis point,” Baird says, putting it mildly.
“They’re just living their life and get caught up in whatever’s happening, I guess,” Knight says. “I don’t think that is just specific to certain areas. A lot of that stuff is pretty universal.”
Still, there’s no denying the sense of place that permeates Knight’s music. It’s one thing that sets it apart, especially in the landscape of current American music. In this era of boy bands and e-commerce, it’s hard to remember that just 15 years ago, artists such as Springsteen and John Mellencamp were topping the charts with songs about people who worked lousy jobs for little pay and worried about losing their house or farm or wife and kids.
Those people are still there. But even mainstream country music seems to have forgotten them, heading to the suburbs along with everyone else and leaving the small towns and factories behind. Knight doesn’t make a big deal about his subject matter. His songs are deliberately narrow and personal in focus, psychological rather than sociopolitical. The overall effect, however, is an amplification of lives and voices that are otherwise being drowned out.
The ongoing commercial question, the one most roots-rock and alt-country practitioners are tired of answering, is whether there’s a way for this music to get heard by mass audiences anymore. Knight’s first album was on Decca, which tried to pitch him as far into the mainstream as it could. There was a single aimed at country radio (“It Ain’t Easy Being Me”) and a video on CMT. But in the midst of the promotional cycle, Decca went through a corporate reshuffling. In what has pretty much become a music industry rite of passage for anyone who releases more than one album, Knight was soon without a home.
“It was hard sometimes, just the waiting,” he says. “But I kept writing songs the whole time. It was like we would get on something where, ‘OK, we’re talking to these people, and they’re interested in signing you,’ and I’d go with that for about three or four months. And then that wouldn’t happen, so there’d be a little down time. Then somebody else would be biting. So a lot of that time was spent looking forward to something that never did happen.”