Chris Knight may not write the most cheerful songs, yet you can hear a streak of optimism on his latest album, Little Victories.
“Yeah, you got to look for it, I guess, but it is not a depressing, pessimistic record,” he says. “It’s kind of like all my other records. It’s about carrying on through good and bad times. You lay down, and that’s when things go bad.”
A severe ice storm about two years ago forced the people in his tiny hometown of Slaughters, Ky., to stay indoors. Knight took advantage of the downtime to write material for Little Victories. Although he’s done well for himself in Nashville, with songs cut by Montgomery Gentry and Blake Shelton, Knight and his family still live about five miles from Slaughters.
On a trip to Nashville, just before heading out on tour, he chatted with CMT Edge about writing his new album, recording with one of heroes and rising to the occasion when the chips are down.
CMT Edge: For someone who has never been there, how would you describe Slaughters?
Knight: You know, there is not a whole lot going on. There are five or six churches. They just closed the grade school down. There used to be a high school, but they shut it down this year. There is one little store. They’ve torn the downtown down. When I was kid, my mother bought our school clothes in downtown Slaughters, but there is really nothing there now. A post office, churches and about 200 people.
An ice storm hit your town pretty hard. How did everyone respond to that?
Everyone survived. A lot of the people were not prepared for it, and they had to leave their homes, or some of them wanted to leave their homes. They went to shelters or went on down the road to motel rooms. Basically, people had to make sure they had heat, kept their water from freezing up and had plenty to eat until they got the power back on. There were places around where power was out for a month. We were out for about three weeks. So we had to keep a fire going. You pretty much knew what you had to do when you got up that day.
I like “In the Mean Time,” especially the lyric that says, “Daddy taught me how to use my boot straps and carry on.” Did you pull that line out of your life?
I probably got that from my old man — to get out and make it happen for yourself. Don’t be sitting around waiting for it.
Or feel like you deserve it.
Yeah, right, feel like you’re entitled to it. Sometimes, I remember being flat broke and all of a sudden something would happen. I never did like the feeling of being flat broke, but it was like that part [in the song] about how something falls out of the sky. It might be a refund from the power company or something — “Look here — $75!”
It’s a treat to hear John Prine on the title track. What was going through your mind when you heard his voice singing your song?
I remember being 12 or 13 years old, listening to John Prine. My brother had a big music collection. He was 18, and he had a whole bunch of records, big nice stereo system. John Prine — I immediately got hooked on his music and lyrics. A couple of years later, I started playing guitar and I tell people that John Prine taught me how to play guitar. So I’m thinking about all this stuff while he is in there singing. He is a great guy. Pretty much he is just like you think he is. If you sit and watch his show and then you meet him, he’s the same. He’s just like I thought he’d be.
How far is Muhlenberg County from your town?
Probably 25 miles. It’s not that far as the crow flies. It might be farther, but not really, though. It’s not really that far to Paradise [the town that inspired one of Prine’s best-known songs] from where I live. I used to go to the Everly Brothers’ concert over at Muhlenberg County, and I have seen them play live over there a couple times. I have seen John Prine play at Western [Kentucky University] at Van Meter Auditorium when I was in college down there. I’ve seen him play in Evansville. I’ve probably seen him live more than anybody.
What is it that keeps you coming back to his music?
The songs. The lyrics. Listening to his music put me in a different mind frame. … I used to play his songs in study hall in high school. I packed my guitar around with me all over the place. I played in study hall for the kids. The teacher would say, “Fine, go ahead and play,” because no one was getting any studying done. So I’d get my guitar out and do a show right there in study hall. Every now and then someone would say, “Where do you get those songs?” (laughs) They had no idea what songs I was playing, you know?
There is a thread of persistence and perseverance on this record. Why is that appealing for you to write about?
I can’t write little simple songs for the sake of writing a song. I got to write it up from my gut — something that’ll give me energy when I’m writing it or singing it, like “In the Mean Time.” I feel like I can really deliver that song, so that’s how I try to write. I have to really be interested and motivated to write a song. Sometimes it’s anger where I come from. Other times, it’s telling a story. But it’s always coming from the gut. Perseverance — it’s having a backbone. We never know what kind of backbone we got until we get challenged.