Chris Knight Offers Personal and Political ‘Victories’
When it comes to the minute details of his career, Chris Knight leaves it to the professionals. The singer-songwriter worries about really matters: the music. His songs are born from experience and his every day life in tiny Slaughters, Ky., population 200. His latest album, Little Victories, is a broad depiction of that life, emblazoned with the hopes, fears and spirit of the American dream. Themes of building something from nothing, and holding on to what you’ve got, are strung throughout the record, delivered with conviction. The Boot sat down with the iconic tunesmith to talk about some of the real stories behind the songs and working with his musical hero on the title track.
How did having John Prine sing on “Little Victories” — which is such a positive song about coping with hard times — come about?
I’d opened a couple of shows (for John) a few years ago and sang backup on his encore, “Paradise.” His bass player, Dave Jacques, used to play with me, too. Then, I got to working with (producer) Ray Kennedy, and he said, “I might try to get John Prine to come over here and sing on this.” He just sent the song and let him listen to it, and I guess he liked it because he came down and sang on it.
Did you get to be in the studio at the same time or did they record your vocals at different times?
They cleared everybody out of the studio. No, I’m kidding. I was there. I was real glad to have him come down and it, because he was a big influence on me. I learned to finger pick listening to John Prine records. Except a handful of Jackson Browne and Dan Fogelberg songs, I played mostly John Prine songs up until I started writing my own stuff. I’m not anybody to get starstruck. I was fairly quiet, and didn’t ask him stuff I really wanted to ask him because I didn’t want to bug him. We talked, and he’s just like you’d think he would be from watching his shows.
You can really hear his influence in your phrasing, but you’ve got your own, very visual way of telling stories.
I’ve got a big family. My grandmother lived a couple months shy of 100. I used to talk to her all the time. She told me enough stories that I could write my next 10 albums just about my family. I grew up in a real rural area, small town, so that’s where it all came from. As far as being visual, I wish I could write a song that didn’t have to be so visual and make it work, but it’s always easier for me if I paint a picture, like a movie or a short story.
A lot of songs on the album talk about being self-sustaining and taking care of your own. What’s a normal day at home like for you?
I live way out in the country. I have 40 acres of land, a horse. I don’t play all day, I don’t have four wheelers. If the yard needs mowing, I mow the yard. Trash needs hauling, I do it. I have a barn I’m finishing up. We heat with wood, as much as we can. I make sure bills are paid and get the kids where they need to be. All summer long, I was at the ballpark every Monday and Thursday night, because I had three kids playing all on different teams.
About two years ago, your part of Kentucky was paralyzed by an ice storm, leaving your home without power for a month. You can hear reference to it in multiple songs. Did you write a lot during that time?
I had a lot of ideas. I wrote “In the Mean Time” right after that. I didn’t have much time to sit around and play my guitar while the power was down, but I did get a lot of ideas out of that. “Little Victories” was one, “Nothing on Me,” “Mean Time” and “You Can’t Trust No One.”
“You Can’t Trust No One” is one of the more political songs on the album, calling everyone to “live as one” even though you’re “not sure what that means.” It sounds like a plea for unity, but recognizing there may not be a direct path.
I’ve always thought that. I remember telling people 20 years ago, and they’d be like, “Oh, no. Nothing like that could ever happen over here.” It absolutely can happen over here and probably will one of these days. The economy is collapsing. There’s no way a war will ever happen over here? Well, I hope not, but why not? They’ve been everywhere else. That may have been where I was going with that, I don’t know. It was a fun song to write.
The narrator of “Nothing on Me” sounds like he’s had a gritty life — being shot in a bar fight and pulling out the bullet himself, walking 20 miles in a blizzard, bonding with a three-legged dog … but the chorus, which speaks to making it against the odds, sounds autobiographical. Is it?
It sounds autobiographical, but it’s more something me and Craig Wiseman put together around that hook. I’d actually written another song that had that chorus, and that song became another song. So I still had that chorus and that hook, “ain’t got nothing on me,” so I played it for Craig. The dog part, I’ve had dogs all my life. I’ve got a one, he doesn’t have three legs but he’s got one he holds up — so there’s the three-legged dog.
You’ve said that when you asked why the album was coming out on 9/11, you were told that it because it was a Tuesday. However, your second album was released on Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks. What was that like?
It was a little spooky actually. I was on the road the next day. People were spooked. Crowds were small. Some of the clubs didn’t know if they wanted to have music or not, thought about cancelling. It was pretty somber. We went ahead and did it, though.