Chris Knight doesn’t like to say much. Won’t chat about his worldview or engage in conversations on his creative approach. For 20 years, several acclaimed albums and a hard-nosed career that’s been hailed as “where Cormac McCarthy meets Copperhead Road”, Knight has always let his music do most of the talking. And on record – as well everywhere across America, from roadhouse taverns to major-city concert halls – his songs have had plenty to say.
You got a later start than most in the music industry. What led you to pursue music full-time?
I’ve been writing songs for a while, sending songs to Nashville and getting some positive feedback. One thing led to another and it finally got to the point where if I wasn’t going to do it now, which was ’91, ’92 – if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it. In ’92 I already made some good contacts in Nashville so the next morning I called Frank Liddell and said, “Hey, I got some new songs.” I hadn’t been to Nashville in eight months at that point. I went down there and played some songs and it worked out. A year and a half later I had a writing deal, I quit my job and been doing it ever since – ’94.
A lot of people are so young when they get started in the business. Do you feel you have a different perspective or more appreciation for what you do because you waited later in life?
I never did work jobs were I was discontented. I worked all through my 20s, and have a college education. I was a strip mine inspector for five years. Before that I worked for a mining consultant. But yeah, I do appreciate it. I’ve been able to do it pretty much on my own terms. I work with good people, have a really great manager and have figured out how to make it work on our terms. I like that part of it. I wasn’t ready to do it when I was 20 years old. I was playing guitar and I sing, but I didn’t have any songs. I had to get a job and an education and make some money. The idea of me going off with a six-string guitar on my back and living in my truck didn’t really appeal to me. But I wonder sometimes if I had been able to write some songs back then what would have happened. But I didn’t write a song I’d play to anybody until I was 26 years old. It took six years after that to get anyone’s attention. Six years of writing 70 or 80 songs a year. It took a couple of years before I wrote with a guitar. I’m just glad to be able to do it now – and still doing it.
You’ve obviously had a love of music for a long time. Where did that initially come from?
I don’t know. I listened to music when I was a kid all my life. We weren’t a musical family. I think my dad played a little harmonica. But I was always fascinated by guitars when I was a little kid. I remember seeing Johnny Cash on TV and my aunt had a record collection I listened to. She had a soundtrack album to “Your Cheatin’ Heart: the Hank Williams Story”. I learned to sing a bunch of those songs when I was seven or eight years old. I played baseball, hunted and fished and played sports. My brother was older and worked in the coalmines and traded something for an old beat up guitar. I was 15, came home and found it on the couch and started to learn the chords. I stayed up probably all night – on a school night. Got up the next morning and went to school. That’s when it started.
How did you get started writing?
I wrote songs, but they weren’t any good. They weren’t things I would play for anybody. And right at the time I was 26 I wrote a song I played for people. They seemed to like it. I went out to open mic things. They only had one around here in Owensboro [Kentucky]. Goldie’s Opryhouse, they still have an open mic night. We had a few songs and we’d go over there and play. I went over there several months playing. I had a repertoire built up of cover songs. I would go out there and play live. As far as songs I kept writing. I wrote some fairly good songs, but they weren’t really keepers – not really good enough for me to play I front of people at the time. I was 26 years old in 1986 and I kept writing. I hadn’t had a guitar for a few years; I sold my old one. IU was walking through the mall and bought this guitar, I still have – an old Alvarez. It sounds great and I’ve written most of my songs on it. I kept writing songs until it got better. I’ve got a large extended family with an apparent history in this area – a lot of stories. I grew up between two smaller towns. Basically every song I write has a bit of fact-based material with it. I always like to write – I did. I always did well in English in high school and college, so I started to put my stories to music.
As a writer do you write from a first person perspective – more personal or from a third person where you telling/narrating a story?
It depends. Most times I’m writing from a first person perspective. I’ll write a character and try to become that character so I can write that song. It’s worked in other ways – whatever worked. I don’t like telling stories about somebody else unless I’m involved in the song.
You’ve had a number of songs recorded by other artists. How does that work? Are you writing a bunch of songs or are you contacted by an artist to write a song specifically for them?
The way it works with me and I think with most people – I don’t know how it works down in Nashville as far as publishing. I was a staff writer for Bluewater Music in ’94 and I had to write so many songs a year. You might write 33 songs you’d get placed. They pay you a salary to write 20-25 songs a year. They paid me a salary and I took a $10,000 cut in pay when I became a songwriter. You take your own catalog in there and show them what you can do and they get a percentage of those songs, pay for a demo on them and pitch them. They’re song pluggers and they take them out to the record companies and meet with an A/R person for a certain artist. The first cut I ever got was on Ty Herndon’s first album. He had a huge hit and I think they were thinking about releasing the song I had co-written but that didn’t work out. Any way, that’s how it works – you write for a publisher and they take your songs and meet with an artist representative and play them the song. And what that means is nobody else can record that song until they decide whether or not they want to record it. That’s the way most of my songs have been recorded. I’ve also had people hear songs off my record and decide they want to record them. A lot of people have that where they record an album and somebody hears a song off of it and want to record it.
When you write a song it’s kind of like giving birth to a baby…
(laughs) No, it’s nothing like that… (laughs)
You know what I mean. When you hear one of your songs recorded by someone else what is going through your mind? Do you like what they do or do you think they should have done something a little different?
I’m always like, I’ve got 400 more songs man, let me play them for you. I want everybody to record every song I’ve written – that’s the way I feel about it.
You’ve been doing music full-time for 20 years. How has your perspective changed as a writer compared to when you first started out?
Writing has gotten a little harder because I’m not the same guy I was five years ago, let alone 15-20 years ago. Attitudes changed – not as pissed off as I used to be. So it gets hard to find material that you want to write about to keep from yourself from repeating over and over. I’ve been writing songs about a guy and a girl but that don’t interest me as far as writing. It’s got to be something that gets me pissed off or make me happy or sad. I’ve got to have a good feeling down my spine before I even want to fool with it. Some songs you’re working on for two years before you finish them. Sometimes you forget how to dive deep and get down there what you need. It used to be easier than that. Even on movies I used to love I can’t stand to watch any more. Watching a movie you love you don’t look at it the same way you did ten years ago. I’m not there any more like somebody else.
You’ve written and recorded many songs as well of having other artists record your songs. Are there one or two songs that you’ve written that have become personal favorites?
I really like “If I Were You”, “Hard Candy”, “Down the River”. “Hard Candy” I don’t hardly play live any more. It’s one of the favorite songs I’ve ever written for myself. I like a lot of them. I don’t know as far as favorite songs. I like playing those on stage – they sound good whether I’m playing solo acoustic, or a band show. Some songs work real well for you. It just varies from time to time.
What keeps you grounded with all the success you’ve had writing and recording and performing so many show a year now?
I do about 85-90 shows the most. I’ve been doing that for a while. I have a whole other life other than music. I’ve got family, a house and land and all that stuff. Me and my manager figured out a way where I work 85 shows a year. It gets the bills paid, kids fed. That’s where I’m at. There might come a time where I’ll do more shows. I enjoy being on the road more that I ever have. We’ll see what happens. You’ve always got to keep good people around you – people you want to be around. Because if I don’t I’ll go by myself.
Many people define success by how much money they have, how many friends they have, social media followers they have. How would you define success?
I’ve written only a few songs that squeak by. They stick out like sore thumbs on my records. They’re good songs but they’re not going to be something I’m crazy about and people that come to my shows are going to be crazy about them either. I never recorded very many songs that I didn’t think I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks, I like this song and I’m going to record it and play it at my shows. Nine times out of ten people will decide that’s a pretty good song. That’s one way I define success – writing a good song, making a good record. I’ve been in the music business 24 years and I don’t see any reason to stop. It’s not like I’m going to have to stop playing music and get a day job. As far as I’m concerned I’m doing all I can do and doing all I want to do. As far as success, success can be a lot of things. You can be successful and not have any time for yourself or anybody else. That’s what Frank Liddell said, “I want to build you a career.” I knew I wasn’t going to be an overnight sensation or a Top 40 country artist. I just had good people pulling for me.
– Dave Weinthal