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Chris Knight is a "Pretty Good Guy"

By Jon Weisberger, September 2001

Write what you know" is a pretty common bit of advice for songwriters, but it's one that Chris Knight took to heart. He grew up near the small town of Slaughters in west-central Kentucky, about 50 miles as the crow flies from Bill Monroe's birthplace of Rosine – and like the father of bluegrass, Knight writes songs that bear the indelible mark of his Kentucky home.

"Back 50 years ago, there was a real coal boom going on in this area, and there are a lot of old company towns where people are still living, and they ‘re still trying to work in the mines," Knight says. "It' s made a lot of people rich, but it's probably made just as many or more poor."

The singer/songwriter knows what he's talking about; he not only grew up in the area, but before he made the move to a full-time music career in 1994, he worked as a mine inspector there, and he knows those towns – and the people who live in them – like the back of his hand.

Not every one of the songs on "A Pretty Good Guy," Knight's second album and his first for Nashville's new DualTone label, are about such people and places, but a good many are.

From the hard luck good old boy on the run in "Becky's Bible" to the avenger of his brother's murder who tells his story in "Down The River" to the title track's protagonist, they're shaped by the dead-ends of rural and semi-rural life.

"I guess it might be fair to say it's a pretty downbeat record," he acknowledges, "but there's a kind of comfortableness there, too."

In fact, Knight's feeling pretty good these days, having rebounded from the loss of the deal with Decca Records that resulted in his 1997 self-titled debut. His signing with DualTone was the result of a process that began when the MCA subsidiary folded in 1999.

"Scott Robinson and Dan Herrington of DualTone used to work for Arista, and I was in the process of signing a record deal with them when Arista Austin was shut down. Scott and them moved on, and so did I, but I kept talking to them, and when they landed somewhere they gave me a call, and we kept talking about it. It's a pretty good deal, I think."

Produced by former Georgia Satellite Dan Baird, who also played guitars on the project, the new collection is a stripped-down affair that, Knight says, went pretty quickly.

"Just about everybody had worked together before. (Bass player) Keith Christopher played with Dan, and (engineer) Joe Hardy, Dan had worked with him. He had produced some Satellites records and some of Dan's solo records.

"I'd worked with (drummer) Greg Morrow on demos and things like that ever since I came to town, and I'd worked with Tony Harrell (keyboards) and Tammy Rogers (violin, mandolin), who played on it, so I kind of threw their names in the hat."

The lineup was rounded out by country-rock veteran Rusty Young of Poco, who contributed lap steel and banjo.

"I'm real comfortable now in the studio," Knight adds. "It probably depends on the people I'm working with, but I enjoy it. When I first got in there, doing demos, it wasn't very comfortable – I never liked the sound of my vocals. But finally I just had to just go with it even if I didn't like it, and now it seems like I've figured out a lot of stuff about how to sing. A lot of the vocals we did on this record, we were playing the tracks through a Marshall amp, and I was singing without headphones. That helped a lot, I think it got my vocals a lot more real."

"It's a good thing, too, whenever I can get a good take on my guitar and vocal at the same time. That's what we did on ‘Pretty Good Guy' and ‘Hard Candy.' I think I played the guitar and did the vocal at the same time, and that helps a lot, too."

By contrast, Knight's first album was a more elaborate affair. "There were differences in the sounds of the instruments," he says. "I'm not sure this new record rocks as hard as the first one. but I think the songs are better on this album. There are a few songs on the first album that stand up, but I think this one's lyric ‘ ally quite a bit stronger and sounds sparser, more organic."

It's no surprise that those qualities are important to Knight. Growing up in Slaughters – he still lives nearby – he became interested in music before he reached his teens and was attracted to singers and songwriters whose work exemplifies them.

"I would just be really hit hard by a certain artist," he recalls. "There are three that I know made an impact on me. I first heard Hank Williams – actually, I heard Hank, Jr. singing Hank Senior's songs first – when I was eight or nine years old. I learned to sing those songs, and I just wanted to be Hank Williams. And then later on came John Prine, and I learned to sing a bunch of his songs, learned to sing them, and then when Steve Earle came out in ‘86, that was what I thought country music should have sounded like."

Knight's music certainly shows the influence of those artists – especially Earle's, not only in the songs themselves but in his gritty, drawling vocal style – but they've served as models in other, less obvious ways, too.

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