I once saw Steve Wynn (of Dream Syndicate) give an acoustic concert. In between tunes, he explained that when a song can be played on just an acoustic guitar and still stand up well, it’s a good song. Chris Knight recorded eleven of his finest songs in 1996 without any production fuss and before he had a major label release. Those recordings now comprise The Trailer Tapes.
Knight’s stripped-down work would surely make Wynn proud. He’s no great shakes as a guitarist, but he has one of those Steve Earle, God-honest voices, which makes you listen to every word out of his mouth. But his singing voice is only a minor selling point. More compellingly, he has a way of telling complicated stories with simple words that leave every listening ear stunned and amazed.
One such unplugged stunner is ″Rita’s Only Fault″. This is the story of a woman who could no longer take being abused by her man, so she killed her lover and ended up in prison. This bad man, as Knight puts it, was Rita’s only fault. Knight’s character, however, cannot see any major flaws in the woman—even with the prison uniform—and visits her whenever he can. You feel bad for Rita because she was only doing what she had to do. You also hurt for Knight’s character because he longs for the one he can’t have.
″Hard Edges″ is a close second when it comes to naming the best song on this CD. It describes a girl who wanted to be a ballerina as a child, but ended up dancing at an adult club, instead. And like any observant songwriter, Knight gazes into the soft heart barricaded by this woman’s hardened outer walls. She may be lust material for lowlife men now, but deep in her heart she will always be the ballerina she dreamed of becoming.
Many of these songs eventually made it to proper Knight albums. One of these is ″Something Changed″. It describes a man that left a small town—perhaps to join the military, maybe for some other reason—but when he returned home, his girl had married and fallen into the arms of another man.
Like many songwriters of his ilk, Knight was a bit of a diamond in the rough when he first started out. After all, it takes time to master sharing the unique Southern perspective eloquently. For example, the working man’s blues of ″Spike Drivin’ Blues″ comes off a little too pedestrian, lacking the layers of emotional detail that make something like ″Rita’s Only Fault″ stand out. ″Leaving Souvenirs″, a song that compares and contrasts a love relationship to a motor vehicle, has been done before and better. Please see Neil Young’s ″Long May You Run″, if you want to witness how this vehicle / girl analogy has been put more successfully into song before. ″Backwater Blues″ isn’t built upon a new lyrical concept either. But it takes on new meaning these days—especially after the flood waters of Katrina. Its tale—about keeping ones head above rising waters—is certainly familiar to current and recent residents of Louisiana and Mississippi.
Another false step is ″Move On″, which is difficult to understand. It appears to tell the story of a ″big city″ guy who is trying to steal the heart of a small town girl. It’s told from the perspective of a redneck. And this redneck is jealous of his slick visitor and, perhaps, embarrassed about his lot in life. ″You better take your earring back where you belong″, he tells this unwelcome guest. But unlike Randy Newman, who is far more adept at getting into the heads of backwards folks, Knight mainly tells it straight. This makes it tough to decide if Knight sides with this redneck or looks down upon him. This lyric certainly lacks flavor, but thankfully, Knight has seasoned his work sufficiently since then.
Chris Knight music is hard to fit into any nice, neat musical category. He has a fine country voice, but he doesn’t play the mainstream country game. ″Rita’s Only Fault″ and ″Hard Edges″ are the sorts of songs Earle and Bruce Springsteen would kill for, making Knight well worth investigating—even if you won’t know where to file his music once you locate it.