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The Boston Phoenix The Real Roots

Chris Knight's heartland country.

By Franklin Soults

JUNE 15, 1998:  Time takes its toll on everything. Not just physical objects, like Niagara Falls or your lower back, but everything, including the timeless classics of culture. Take countrified, heartland roots rock, a classic sound that may be the most enduring pop style of the past couple decades. And also, in a way, the most degraded.

Cultivated back in the '70s by artists as diverse as John Prine, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the ineluctable Rolling Stones, this Americana amalgam reached full maturity in the late '80s with the earnest, earthy heartland rock of John Hiatt, John Mellencamp, Steve Earle, and Bruce Springsteen -- and distant cousins like the Blasters, Rank and File, Lucinda Williams, even the Mekons from Leeds, England, and Roseanne Cash from Nashville, USA. Today, when most '80s styles have become part of the charming and cheesy past (synth-pop, anyone?), big-beat twang & roll survives in No Depression alterna-country, Nashville crossover, and mainstream rock from Sheryl Crow to Blues Traveler. But though the sound has remained largely intact, its content has moved from innovation and inspiration to the comforts of surefire sentimental clichés.

Chris Knight's homonymous debut on Decca seems at first to confirm this ho-hum trend. The cover shot of the 37-year-old newcomer -- sitting on a stool in a field of scraggly weeds, a bird dog to his left and an acoustic guitar propped up to his right -- is an imitation antique, replete with folds, scratches, and a hint of sepia tint. The album opens with a halting acoustic guitar and sad, slow accordion, a sound that's just as tasteful, retrograde, and stiffly obvious as the photo. But then Knight starts to sing, and I started to sit up. More than the plain, twangy disaffection of his voice -- a ringer for Steve Earle on his 1986 debut, Guitar Town -- it's the words that grabbed me. "There ought to be a town somewhere/Named for how I feel/Yeah, I could be the mayor down there/And say, 'Welcome to Sorryville.' "

Self-depreciating but pissed, metaphorical but vernacular, the couplets cue you into what Knight has politely insisted on in interviews, and what radio programmers have ignored since the album's release: this roots rock is pure country. Reviewers have stressed the artist's down-home authenticity by pointing out that in real life Knight hails from a town whose name is every bit as evocative as Sorryville: Slaughters, Kentucky, population 200. Although his college degree gave him the chance to escape the land of his pipe-liner dad and school-bus-driver mom, he preferred to put his education to use as a local strip-mine inspector, a job that gave him enough money to buy 40 acres and a trailer. It was a decade into this career before his stabs at an artist's life took off, a history of false starts that suggests Nashville was just too big (and corporate) for this down-home boy to tackle.

The album, however, shows a man in complete control of his creative faculties going against the roots-rock grain and toward a country spirit as an instinctive act of refinement. Unlike his acknowledged heroes, grizzled folk icon John Prine and ornery country-rock iconoclast Steve Earle, Knight comes upon his material as a second-generation craftsman. Where the first roots-rockers invested themselves in their art like true rock-and-rollers, Knight stands at a level of formal remove even when singing about his own town or a lost love. Most reviewers celebrate his stark grimness, but the songs are arresting not because they're so honest or hard-edged but because they've mastered the colloquial tropes on which great country music turns -- clever metaphors, twist endings, all the glorious corn that makes it genuine pop art. This is what puts Knight several notches higher than tasteful and talented alterna-country contemporaries like Dale Watson and Mike Ireland. And though both Prine and Earle could turn this trick in moments of brilliant whimsy, neither of them ever took it so far.

It's no surprise, then, that Knight's great subject turns out to be country's central theme: the travails of long-term relationships, as fired by the slow-burning glow of deep memories and the ache of lost love. Throughout the opening "It Ain't Easy Being Me," the Mayor of Sorryville continues in his sorry-ass duties -- commemorating a bridge by pouring gasoline over it and tossing in a match -- as an extended metaphor for how he has fucked up his love life ("I need your love, but I break your heart"). The farmer's biggest failed crop in "Bring the Harvest" is his marriage; the trucker is so eager to get back to his girl on "The Hammer Going Down," he wants to pound the pistons with his fists. It's not just the passion of Knight's soaring roots rock that makes this gritty material so invigorating. It's the way an artist so intimately acquainted with the deprivations of passing time has figured out a way to beat the clock.

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