Move over, Steve Earle: Chris Knight is hands down the best alt-country songwriter out there. On Heart of Stone, his sixth album in ten years, Knight’s lyrics are at their strongest. He’s a twangified mix of Earle, Bruce Springsteen, and John Mellencamp in their prime, i.e. minus their current tendencies toward windbaggy proselytizing. Each song is a self-contained vignette, full of hard luck folks and rambling men set to hard-driving guitars and lap steel. In short, this is Americana at its finest.
Despite his Kentucky address (can you get any more country than living in Slaughter, Kentucky, population 200?—the answer is “No”), musically Chris Knight seems like he might be more at home in a Texas roadhouse—not the romper rooms of Pat Green songs, filled with baseball-capped frat boys and Shiner Bock, but a Double Deuce-style roadhouse, complete with drunks trying to outrun their miserable lives, and maybe Patrick Swayze in the corner to keep the peace. Fans of Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen will definitely appreciate Knight’s brand of swaggering roots rock, while Robbie Fulks and Ryan Adams listeners will be drawn to the sharp lyrics.
The standout track of the record—perhaps standout track of the year—by far is “Crooked Road”, a song that could easily be renamed “Coalminer’s Father”. Almost certainly inspired by Knight’s previous career as a strip-mine reclamation inspector, it’s the story of a man and his wife trying to pick up the pieces of their already not-so-great life after their son is killed in a mining accident. In tried and true country fashion, they try to find salvation in the open road, a Sisyphean task if there ever was one. Most heartbreaking of all is the chorus: “Damn these hard times / Damn the coalmines / Damn the good dreams gone cold / And while I’m at it, damn this crooked road”. Producer Dan Baird, formerly of the Georgia Satellites, keeps his hands to himself (sorry, but that joke, however lame, is irresistible), letting Knight’s powerful lyrics and whiskey-raw vocals do the heavy lifting with only an acoustic guitar to accompany them.
On the album’s opener, “Home Sick Gypsy”, Knight vocally channels the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women”, emulating Mick Jagger’s raspy howl to a T while singing about country music’s old favorite: the ramblin’ man. Now, Knight’s rambler is nowhere near as plaintive and lonesome as Hank Williams’, but I think Luke the Drifter would have appreciated the straightforwardness of Chris Knight’s lyrics. And we see just how straightforward Knight can be on the album’s closing track, “Go On Home”: “Stupid’s in the water these days”. ‘Nuff said.
This is what Americana is supposed to sound like. It’s free of the redneck chest-thumping and twee sentimentalizing that runs rampant in commercial country music, as well as the semi-recent groundswell of faux-Southern rock, while remaining unflinchingly honest about life, love, and hard luck. Heart of Stone isn’t exactly the feel-good record of the summer, but it’s certainly not one to pass up.