Chris Knight has described himself as being “a cross between Steve Earle and Cormac McCarthy”, a fairly apt description given the work on his first two albums, Chris Knight (1998) and A Pretty Good Guy (2001). A native and current resident of Slaughters, Kentucky (population 200), Knight’s gift as a songwriter is his ability to tell the stories of fairly average people caught by circumstances that often lead them to do remarkable things. Songwriting the caliber of Knight’s is always welcome, but especially now as country music grows increasingly vapid. Consider the top of the current country charts: Toby Keith and Willie Nelson sing of vigilantes who celebrate their victories with buying “whiskey for [their] men and beer for [their] horses”, Tim McGraw is a “real bad boy but a real good man”, and Kenny Chesney has discovered the way to solve your problems is to ignore them by taking a tropical vacation—“No shirt, no shoes, no problem”.
Unfortunately, such options aren’t open to the characters in Chris Knight’s songs—and if they had enough money to afford a trip to the beach, they could pay their bills and probably avoid the trouble they’re in anyway. The Jealous Kind is well populated with the characters that have defined Knight’s career. This outing, co-produced by Dan Baird (Georgia Satellites and producer of A Pretty Good Guy) and Joe Hardy (engineer for albums by Steve Earle, ZZ Top, and the Replacements in addition to A Pretty Good Guy) finds Knight taking a more rock-influenced approach. As Knight has put it, “Why should a story song always sound so pensive? For these songs I wanted a strong beat behind it with guitars and B-3 as well as steel”.
Actually, it seems fairly impossible for Knight to write a song that isn’t pensive, which is one of his strengths as a songwriter, and The Jealous Kind is no different. While the album may not be as thematically cohesive (or have as many guns) as A Pretty Good Guy, it’s still a fine collection of songs that describes the lives of people who share a desperation not always quiet.
The Jealous Kind gets off to a strong start with the title track, one of the best pieces on the album as Knight recounts in this Knight/Gary Nicholson composition the words of a man caught in a police chase but determined to get home to Maria first. The blending of electric and acoustic guitars underscores the song’s thematic tension, and Knight’s scratchy southern voice has never sounded better.
Or there’s “Banging Away” (co-written with Chuck Prophet), which describes three characters who refuse to be silent despite the odds; “The Border” (co-written with Christie Sutherland, who adds backing vocals), about two lovers on a crime spree in Mexico; and “Train Not Running” (penned with Stacy Dean Campbell), a compelling song that describes the desperate words of an unemployed husband as he promises his wife to take her away “from the sounds of a train not running”.
“Carla Came Home”, written with David Leone (who worked with Knight on A Pretty Good Guy‘s “North Dakota”), is the tale of an abused wife who goes to her parents’ home for Christmas, while Knight co-wrote “Devil Behind the Wheel” with Matraca Berg, who also sings on the track. The strained father-son relationship of “Hello Old Man” takes on a new resonance with Bob Britt’s lap steel.
The Jealous Kind comes to a staggering close with “Long Black Highway” (co-written with Austin Cunningham), about two friends who rob a gas station with terrifyingly unintended results.
Let’s hope Chris Knight is “banging away” for a very long time.
// Notes from the Road
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