Somehow along about 1992, Chris Knight decided that the thing to do with the songs he’d been writing was to drive down to Nashville from Slaughters, Kentucky, where he worked as a strip mine reclamation inspector, and play them at the Bluebird Cafe. It worked, more or less. Two years later he quit the mining business, and in 1998 his debut came out on Decca, then revived as a mainstream country imprint.
His signature piece during those early years was a wonderfully grim story told from the perspective of a fellow both homeless and armed, called “If I Were You”. By way of introducing Knight to the press, Decca sent out cassette labeled The Trailer Tapes that included an astonishingly barren performance of that song and, I believe, three others.
There was, of course, no chance in hell that country radio would play any conceivable version of “If I Were You”. And, for various perfectly legitimate reasons (I asked), it didn’t end up on his debut. Though he’s tried recording it several times (it’s on his second album), nothing has — apparently, yet — rivaled that spartan solo recording.
Knight is often described as a cross between John Prine and Steve Earle, but he is (and his songs are) tougher and more blunt than either man, and he writes with the humorless fury of the desperate and the forgotten.
Various forms of The Trailer Tapes and other early publishing demos have long circulated privately, simply because Knight’s songs are never more forcefully presented than when he is alone with his guitar. This more formal release features eleven early tracks cleaned up by Ray Kennedy, while leaving a great deal more unheard. Even more provocatively, it adds four songs (“Backwater Blues”, “Spike Drivin’ Blues”, “Leaving Souvenirs” and “My Only Prayer”) that don’t appear among the three illicit discs of demos on my shelves.
Despite Kennedy’s magic, careful ears will still hear things wrong with these songs, silly things that don’t much matter like a moment slipping out of tune or a hint of background noise or whatever. Here and there a word is chosen wrong, or there’s a phrase he’d write better now. And Knight is clearly more comfortable in front of a microphone now than he was a decade back.
But the magic is here. And he never did need that band, though he’s grown used to it. Maybe someday he’ll sit down with Kennedy and a guitar and a selection of beverages and go back through his catalogue of unrecorded songs, maybe toss in a few new ones. But probably he won’t.