Americana-country singer Chris Knight comes from a family of storytellers and what he calls "colorful people" from his home in rural Kentucky. The economic highs and lows of his people, and the lifestyle and everyday dramas of rural folks dominate his songwriting. With a graveled singing voice and innate straightforwardness, Knight's songs are redolent of his background.
Knight grew up close to the earth in Webster County, Ky., near the town of Slaughters. Born in June 1960, he spent a good portion of his childhood outdoors, playing with his brothers and exploring the woods that surrounded his family home on three sides.
"My family lived where the closest neighbors were about a half-mile away," Knight says. "We grew up hunting, fishing and camping. Once we got older, we'd go into town on Saturday night. We all played sports: baseball and basketball. I mowed lawns in the summertime. I had a very good upbringing."
Knight learned to play guitar at age 15. He absorbed the music of John Prine, one of his main inspirations, as well as the Americana model that Prine epitomizes. When he finished high school, however, Knight pursued another line of work. After earning a degree in agriculture from Western Kentucky University, he began a 10-year stint in the coal-mining industry.
"I was a mining consultant, doing technical work for coal companies—writing mine permit applications and doing environmental studies, checking water and construction sites," he says. "The last five years before I got into the music business, I was a strip-mine inspector for the Commonwealth of Texas."
Knight, who says he always enjoyed reading and did well in his college writing classes, began writing his own songs at 26.
"I took a look at all that background from college and figured I can tell a story easier than I can write a short, catchy song. I can tell a story better than I can write short stories," he says. "So that's what I did."
Though he's had a couple record deals in his day—with Decca Records and Dualtone Music Group—Knight and his manager, Rick Alter, record and release independently. It's been a process, but they now have full ownership of all Knight's music except his Decca-released self-titled debut album from 1998. His 2012 album, "Little Victories," is Knight's eighth release and a great example of Knight making his own music on his own time.
"As a songwriter, I've always been perplexed by why there are rules to song writing. Why do you have to play verse-chorus-verse-chorus then a bridge and a chorus? I just never worried too much about it," Knight says. "There's a lot of people who do a whole lot better than I me, but I just can't do it. If it weren't for the few people who've recorded my songs, I'd be home working a regular job."
People who work regular jobs are close to Knight's heart, especially those in the coal-mining industry.
"Coal provides a lot of people with jobs; a lot of economies are based on the coal business," he says. "People look at a restaurant and think it doesn't have anything to do with the coal business, but if you shut down the coal mine, you'll see how little money that restaurant's going to make."
Knight understands that coal is a big economic driver for people in rural Kentucky, but as a former environmental inspector, he also has a clear understanding of the hazards and impact of mining practices.
"I'm ambivalent to a certain point," he says. "I see both sides of the coin, but you can't just shut the industry down. They've got to find a reasonable, responsible alternative that will provide jobs."
For the time being, Knight's regular work continues to be playing his music. He has plans to release another album within in the next two years.
"I'm just starting to think about it, starting to get some songs together, so it'll be a while," Knight says with natural directness. "It's always good to get one out, but I'm not going to rush anything."
Chris Knight performs at 7:30 p.m. June 26 at Duling Hall (622 Duling Ave.). Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for the all-ages seated show. Admission is $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Visit chrisknight.net and ardenland.net.