When Chris Knight sings a song, you sit there and listen. That's all. In exchange you get a raw, unvarnished look at the way people learn to survive when their worlds constantly dish out dejection, frustration and disappointment.
Unlike today's country radio tunesmiths, who crank out song after song about bonfire parties and pretty women dancing on the tailgates of pickups, Knight's vision of rural America is more likely to paint a somber picture of a guy who's hoping to get his worn-out Ford F-250 running again so he can continue to earn a living.
The writer of songs such as It Ain't Easy Being Me, Down the River and Banging Away said that he's not particularly interested in creating hit songs if the price he has to pay is having to perform something he doesn't believe in.
"There are people who can get away with doing that, but I can't," Knight said in a phone interview last week. "There has to be a connection there for me. If it's not there, if I can't relate to it, I can't honestly sing it."
Knight, 53, compares himself to a being a novelist who is always fascinated by the push-pull of the human condition, and he spends a lot of time wondering what compels a character in a song to act in a specific manner.
"You're an outsider looking in," Knight said. "You try to imagine what must be going through a person's mind and wondering what they might do and how it might affect someone else. Sometimes there's a good result; other times there's not."
Knight, who will perform two shows Saturday at the 12th annual Riverhawk Music Festival at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, grew up and still lives in the tiny mining town of Slaughters, Ky.
He said that growing up in an insular community where everyone knows everyone offers plenty of fodder for the kind of four-minute vignettes he pens.
But few of his songs are autobiographical, he said.
"There are some that are based on real events and embellished," he explained. "If you're a songwriter and you end up in jail for a night due to disorderly behavior, then you write a song about being in the penitentiary for a decade. I just do what songwriters do."
The son of a pipe liner, Knight worked his way through school and graduated from Western Kentucky University with a degree in agriculture.
He spent 10 years working as coal mine reclamation inspector. Although he's always had a passion for music, he began writing his own songs when he was 26, inspired by the songwriting of Steve Earle.
"I never wanted to be without a job, and playing music seemed like such a gamble," he said. "But I finally decided if I was going do it, I needed to put everything I had into it."
Knight was 37 and still living in Kentucky when he signed a songwriting deal in Nashville. Shortly thereafter, he signed with Decca Records and released his first album in 1998. Although he had some success as a songwriter — he wrote the Montgomery Gentry hit She Could Change Me and had tunes recorded by artists such as Randy Travis, Blake Shelton and others — he never made much of a dent as a country radio artist.
However, Americana stations took note of Knight's talents and began touting him to a nationwide audience through his recordings of Cry Lonely, Oil Patch Town and Enough Rope. Since then, he's continued to amass a loyal following that eagerly looks forward to every recording release. So far, he's released eight albums, including last year's Little Victories, on his own label.
As for his next recording project, Knight is hesitant to offer many details, other than to say that he won't record again until he's satisfied he has something worth putting out.
"I'm like that," he said. "I don't write as much as I used to, and I'm not the same person I was 20 years ago. I need to find something I'm excited about writing. My older brother once told me, 'You know, someday they're just going to run out of songs to write.' In a way, that's true if you listen to radio a lot. If I can't be as proud of something I write as I have in the past, I might as well not write it."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.