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Farmer Knight focuses on music

By Jon Johnson, March 1998

It's as difficult to pigeonhole Cheri Knight's second solo album, "The Northeast Kingdom," as it is to pigeonhole the woman herself.

Though Knight made a name for herself as the bassist/vocalist for the Boston-based alt. country kingpins the Blood Oranges earlier in the decade, "The Northeast Kingdom" veers toward the melodic, Beatlesque rock of Sam Phillips as often as it evokes, say, Richard Thompson or the familiar territory of the Blood Oranges; not particularly a country album, yet not a complete break with the past by any means.

And this from an album which actually features her fellow ex-Oranges Mark Spencer (guitar) and Jim Ryan (mandolin) as part of the studio band; as close to a full-blown Blood Oranges reunion as one is likely to see at this point.

Since the Blood Oranges called it a day in 1994 Knight has recorded two solo albums and has divided her time between music and raising flowers on a farm in western Massachusetts near her home in Hatfield. Not exactly the life that one might expect of a typical country or rock musician.

"It's funny," says Knight in a phone interview from her record company's offices in Nashville. "I would say that the thing that people want to talk to me about seems to be farming. I just did an interview where I talked to somebody for an hour and fifteen minutes on the phone, and all we talked about was farming."

Knight has been a musician for most of her life. Though she hated taking lessons, she studied piano into her early twenties and began demoing her songs while in college, joining the Blood Oranges as its bass player and occasional singer in 1989, sticking with the group through two albums and a five-song EP.

Knight's solo career began in 1995 with the release of "The Knitter" on the now-defunct East Side Digital label. Though her original intention was to record the album and then begin working on a new Blood Oranges album afterwards, things never worked out that way: the group was burnt out and their inability to secure a large following outside of the Boston area - despite the rise of similarly-minded alternative country groups - had serious repercussions in the personal lives of its members.

Knight continued raising flowers and recording as a solo artist and other group members drifted off to other bands, including the Beacon Hillbillies and Wooden Leg.

"We worked really hard and were on a label that could not support us on the road. Many jobs were lost, and marriages broke up, and it just took its toll on our personal lives. There were always a certain amount of people out there who liked what we did but most people did not get what we were doing. We'd go out on the road and not draw that many people, and it was hard. After a while I'd say to myself, 'Nobody gets this. We don't draw. Why don't I just stay home and focus on writing music?'"

"The Knitter" was made up of songs that Knight had written that hadn't made their way onto Blood Oranges albums for one reason or another. Though a critical favorite, the album was poorly distributed and the label's focus shifted to Scandinavian folk-rock groups shortly afterwards (along with a name change to North Side). In the meantime, the resumption of work with the Blood Oranges that had once been planned never happened and Knight continued farming and writing.

"The Northeast Kingdom" marks Knight's debut for Steve Earle's E-Squared label. Earle called Knight from Ireland two years ago after hearing Knight's music on a compilation tape that a mutual friend had made for him.

"A friend of ours made him a drive tape, and she put on a song called 'Light In the Road' (from "The Knitter") and a couple of Blood Oranges songs. And he really liked it and called me up from Ireland and said, 'Let's make a record.'"

The resulting album - co-produced by Earle and Ray Kennedy in Nashville in a two-week sprint - also features Will Rigby, former drummer for Eighties pop band the dB's, and backing vocals on two tracks by Earle's friend, Emmylou Harris.

"Steve said that she was free and asked if I would like her to sing on a few tracks. And how many answers are there to that question? 'You betcha!' Get her in here!' So I just knew that 'Crawling' and 'Dar Glasgow' were the songs. She was great. Really down-to-earth. She really is exactly like her singing."

The resulting album is an eclectic mix of styles; from the celtic-influenced "Dar Glasgow" and "The Hatfield Side" to rock tracks like "Black Eyed Susie" and country numbers like "If Wishes Were Horses" and "White Lies."

"The Hatfield Side" explores a longstanding rivalry between Knight's rural hometown and Hadley, Mass., which Hatfield seceded from over 300 years ago. And, indeed, rural life and farming are themes which crop up on the record frequently.

"It's always been a theme in my life and I feel like this record is the first time that I've been able to put everything together. It's hard when you're a farmer and try to do music because farming is so demanding."

"The jury is still out on whether or not it's a good feature (of mine), but I've just never been able to do the things that I didn't want to do. I could never work in an office and I couldn't live in a city," says Knight, who commuted to rehearsals and shows from her western Massachusetts home during the Blood Oranges period.

Knight will be touring to support the album during late winter and in the spring with a road band that will include Rigby, guitarist Marlee MacLeod, and guitarist Eric Lewis. Considering that her record has been released at a time when greenhouses are being opened and that she'll be touring during planting season, she's had to make some adjustments to her life on the farm.

"I've had to rearrange my schedule (on the farm) a little bit, and I'm going to be working on there all summer but I've left a lot of time to be playing. Fortunately everyone else there is really supportive of my music. I'm just really happy to be playing again. I've always had two recurring themes in my life: music and farming. And I'm really lucky that I can spend so much time doing both of them."