Chris Knight,
Enough Rope
(Drifter's Church, 2006)

Chris Knight, I'm sure, bristles at the incessant comparisons to Steve Earle and John Prine. With Enough Rope (his fourth album, by my count) and Nashville veteran Gary Nicholson's production, he's added enough classic guitar rock to get John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen on the list, too. To my hearing, however, such comparisons fall somewhere between beside the point and unfair.

To start with, he's a pretty damn good Chris Knight, which means he brings his own particular constellation of talents, not to mention his distinctive sensibility, to the task. He has a folk balladeer's storytelling skills, in evidence whether he's delivering the song with an acoustic guitar or with a hard-driving studio (or live) band. His songwriting is focused and consistent. Even when he's putting forth his idea of a commercial country song (as here with "Cry Lonely" and "Saved by Love"), his uncompromising performance affords the material an emotional authenticity no Nashville hat act could possibly match or, I don't doubt, imagine.

He lives in a small rural town (in Kentucky) where he grew up, as do I (in Minnesota), and I can attest that his stories about life in provincial environment and circumstance get it right, which urban singer-songwriters seeking to pass as rustic voices usually don't. (Movies and television shows practically never get us right, either.) His characters are recognizable both as human beings and, more specifically, as country folk, up against forces they resent without always comprehending, in an urbanized nation that has left them behind except on those occasions when reactionary politicians pause to harvest their votes by manipulation of their fears (of, for example, gay people, brown-skinned, non-English-speaking and/or non-Christian people, or those sinister, scheming entities called "liberals"). It is easy to live out here and be angry pretty much most of one's waking hours, if one had (or desired) the energy to sustain that sort of rage. "Life in the country ain't like in the movies," Danny Barnes, another truth-telling rural bard, pronounces, with dead-on accuracy, in one of his songs.

Only in one Knight song, the fury-flaming "Dirt," about the greed that fuels the demolition of the rural landscape, is there something like a political statement. In other words, Knight is not exactly a rabble-rousing Woody Guthrie with an electric band. Still, the bleak lives of the characters owe in good part to the bleak economic realities of the place they have chosen to live. This theme is expressed with great power and melancholy beauty in "Rural Route," perhaps the strongest of the many strong cuts here.

Knight is good, too, at evoking the sorts of philosophical resignations and modest satisfactions that sustain rural life, for example the ties of family and of attachment -- however unsentimental -- to one's native ground. To my hearing, while there is an abundance these days of able rooted singer-songwriters, few live the lives and walk the talk, and even fewer are as precise, in an almost literary sense, in communicating the truths of that experience. Knight's songs feel real because they are as real as all those struggling towns and failing farms and polluted waters out beyond the city limits. Knight doesn't preach. He just tells the stories, and they tell you all you need to know to figure out the rest.

by Jerome Clark
25 November 2006

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