Chris Knight,
Little Victories
(Drifter's Church, 2012)

If country music still existed in any meaningful sense, singer-songwriter Chris Knight would possibly be a successful (if unusually intelligent) practitioner, fusing older styles with modern arrangements and perpetuating the story-telling tradition with which rural-based musical expression was once associated. As it is, Knight occupies some marginal space some would call Americana (whatever that vague genre designation is supposed to mean, never clear to me), others Southern folk-rock.

He's often lazily compared to Steve Earle and John Prine but in fact is distinct from either. For one thing, Knight's songs have a regional focus, set in his native Kentucky, and they represent a contemporary iteration of that state's rich history of plaintive ballads of lives lived (and ended) hard. On one level much of Knight's music is straight-ahead guitar rock; yet on another, fiddles, banjos and mandolins recall the old-time stringband sound (most explicitly in the affecting and purely acoustic "Hard Edges"). If others are doing some approximation of this, nobody's doing it quite this way, or as interestingly. On the other hand, "Jack Loved Jesse," intentionally or otherwise, does owe something to John Fogerty.

Little Victories is 11 solidly crafted songs, delivered with Knight's defining intensity. Even so, the title tune contributes an unexpected dose of humor, notwithstanding the consideration that the narrator is the sort of hapless loser Knight otherwise treats with a combination of protective sympathy and uneasy distance. The joke is that the singer has so lowered his expectations that practically nothing feels, all things considered, better than the alternative, which is nothing at all. On the other hand, the opener, "In the Mean Time," has a like individual seeking comfort in the spewing of Rush Limbaugh-like cliches bespeaking a Social Darwinism from which the singer derives the delusional belief that his circumstances, however impossible, are his natural lot. In this context, "Mean" has two meanings.

As a general proposition one doesn't listen to Knight for the sort of humor associated with Prine (who sings a verse of "Little Victories," by the way) or the blunt populist political lessons Earle draws. There's a particular fierceness in Knight's approach. Limited though they are by poverty and failure to understand anything but immediate realities, his characters defiantly -- often self-destructively -- try to take on the unforgiving world around them. At the same time, the flinty moral underpinning of "You Can't Trust No One" is striking. If you listen to it attentively enough, for all its angry talk of crime, conflict, desperation and gun-packing, you hear a bracingly unsentimental hillbilly perspective on hopes more naively expressed in Jesse Colin Young's once-famous hippie-folk anthem "Get Together."

While Knight has been around for a while, he is no household name. His fans, however, are loyal for a reason. If his songs ask much, they offer an ample reward. Knight is worth getting to know.

music review by
Jerome Clark

23 February 2013

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