There’s really not a lot wrong with Enough Rope, the new record from country-rocker Chris Knight. He is wise like Willie and smart like Hag and hits the heart like Mellencamp used to and growls like Springsteen used to; he’s got populist cred coming out his earholes and his stories are (mostly) pretty great and his melodies are (mostly) memorable and (almost) everything is played with guts and backbone. I loved his last one and this one is probably even better.
But if I had some leeway, I wouldn’t lead off with “Jack Blue”. It’s a gutsy heartsy storysong all right, tracking the progression of a tough barroom brawler who realizes that violence might not be the answer to life, and it sounds pretty damned Chris Knight-ish. But it fails as a story (the climax of the song takes place offstage, we never learn what it is that makes him realize he had to change his ways), and the chorus is kinda way-too-easy (“Don’t go lookin’ for trouble / It’ll find you anyway”. Eh).
See, I would probably have started off with “Rural Route”, which is much sneakier and subtler. Our protagonist tries to return to the small town in which he grew up: “I’d go back, but I can’t go home / The river is up and the road is closed / And there ain’t no telephone in my mother’s house / And all the lights are out / Down on the rural route”. That’s some poetry right there, boy, that’s what that is. The sound never exactly breaks into rock and roll, but the attitude is all there and the banjo kicks enough butt for any purpose you might have.
Alternatively, Knight might have wanted to put “Too Close to Home” up front. It’s a natural single, so why not have it right there where the people can hear it? This time, our guy is separated from his wife and kids, but everything keeps hitting him “too close to home”, which is ironic because he’s too far away from home. Okay, this seems a little too-too, but it’s all in the details, man: people at a restaurant sharing their family photos, a baseball hitting his windshield when he pulls off the side of 40 East (and you better believe that Chris Knight ALWAYS names his highways). And the chorus has a bigger hook than the one on that dude who was chasing Peter Pan.
But I guess “Jack Blue” is better as an opener than “Dirt”, because that song would just be taken for granted if it hit leadoff, and “Dirt” is a song that cannot be taken for granted. It’s a populist rant against so-called progress, written from the point of view of a small-town guy watching a factory cover over his grandfather’s farm. This has been done a million ways in country music, but not lately like this, because usually guys like this are all happy about factories coming to small towns so they can have jobs. But our narrator is bitter and angry and frustrated, the way he should be: “I sit down by the highway, I hear them big Cats growl / Where the quail gonna fly to? Where will the rabbits run now? / I watch ‘em tearin’ all to hell what used to be my church / Tearin’ up my grandpa’s land / They’re treatin’ my grandpa’s land like dirt”. It reads just fine here, but you have to hear the martial cadence of the drums, the slow sting of the guitar, the furious, puzzled, defeated way Knight sings his words. Clearly a song of the year, maybe THE song of the year so far. A truly stunning performance.
Not sure about the slower stuff, though; “Saved by Love” is pro forma blah-blah that sounds like Knight doesn’t think much about radio hits but wanted to write one anyway. It’s soft and it’s slow and it’s muddleheaded (the guy had a not-so-great life before she came along, but he was in bad shape, but he wasn’t, but he was?). But it’s really the only whiff here out of 13 songs, and it still manages to stick in the memory anyway.
But Knight is best when he rocks the eff out. “Bridle on a Bull” is tough country blues that punches where most songs slap; “Up From the Hill” features a chorus of “Rock and roll! / Driving wheel / Down from the valley and up from the hill”. The most recent song that the band playing at the mysterious bar in “River Road” knows how to play? “Bad to the Bone.” Lyrics like that are no joke, kid.
Neither is Chris Knight. You know what the coolest thing is, though? This might not even be the album of his career. I’m waiting for the next one like you don’t know how.