The Kentucky-based Americana vet proves his staying power on Almost Daylight
“Her daddy used to own the hardware store / But it and him ain’t around no more,” mourns Chris Knight.
“Send It on Down,” a co-write with David Leone (Michelle Wright), was first recorded by none other than Lee Ann Womack five years ago for her The Way I’m Livin’ record; her performance over lush piano and acoustic guitar taps into the melancholy of moving on with remarkable potency. Today, Knight finally offers his own official recording, and as one of the originators, his perspective is unexpectedly grainier and packs even more punch.
“Send It on Down,” which sees Womack return for harmony, is the sturdy, emotional bedrock to Knight’s first new album in seven years called Almost Daylight. “I hadn’t thought about the song in awhile, and then, she cut it. The song had been around for awhile, and there were a few things in it that bothered me,” he reflects. “That was one of the main reasons I had never cut it. I rewrote parts of it and got it where I could sing it a little better. Her version made me think about the song again, and I actually started playing it live. I thought hers was great.”
“Everybody’s Lonely Now” leans into similar emotional territory but with a bit more edge. “You been missing someone else whole time you been with me,” he sings, before offering a nugget of wisdom, “Don’t feel lonely / Baby, take a look around / Don’t feel lonely / Baby, everybody’s lonely now.” His words are written and delivered with refreshing simplicity, and it cuts to the truth in a way most songwriters fail to do.
“There was something we used to say when we were kids. Somebody’d say, ‘Well, I ain’t got no money,’” he remembers. “And they’d say, ‘Don’t feel lonely, buddy, you ain’t the only one. If someone is bellyaching about something, you just tell them, ‘hey, you’re not special.’” He laughs for a moment, letting his statements simmer.
His humility is contagious; Almost Daylight is not only a fine addition to this year’s Americana lineup, but it further confirms that he didn’t lose his touch. Seven years is a long time to be away from the music industry, and as he’s stated in previous interviews, it was time well spent with nurturing a family – he has two kids in high school and one in college now – and letting creativity naturally come to him. The moment has to be right. “I’m not writing as much as I was. I expected that to happen, and I’m pretty damn sure it happens to everybody,” he says. “Songs don’t come like they used to. There’s not too much out there that interests me that I want to write a song about – that I haven’t already written. I don’t want to keep writing the same old songs.”
“The Damn Truth” is a bold mover, particularly in its politically-charged underpinning. He’s wily and frustrated with the evening news, and it so happened to all come to a head this year. “This song has been around in 10 different versions and 25 verses. We finished it up the night before I cut it,” he says of the song, which started not long after 2012’s Little Victories record. “There’s a lot of silliness going on. I don’t have to tell anybody. All this ignorance and silliness has escalated since Donald Trump became President.”
Despite it all, however, it’s not all doom and gloom. Almost Daylight contains plenty of moments of clarity and hope. “I keep telling myself to pull the sun out of the clouds,” he observes on “Go On,” which looks at hardships as a chance to truly grow. “You can either lay down and quit or you can put one foot in front of the other and keep your head up. You can’t see anything looking at the ground,” he says. “How can you see if something good is coming around? That just makes sense to me. I know a lot of that stuff is physical and chemical and some people are in really bad situations. Everybody gets down, but you have to get up.”
“Staring out the door of the motel room / Waitin’ for the sun to stare down the moon / Another long night / The rates are low but the cost is high / Didn’t have you, I’d never get by,” he sings on the title song. He’s worn and tattered but always peers ahead for what will surely bring him peace. His head held high, he lets the storm dissipate around him before calling it quits. Soon, the sun does break the horizon, and bringing with it, new beginnings, adventures and promise.
AUDIO: Chris Knight’s eponymous debut from 1998 (full album)
Almost Daylight comes 21 years after his very first studio record. 1998’s Chris Knight was released on Decca Records and saw him teaming with producers Greg Droman and Frank Liddell, whom he had met six years previously when he first arrived in Nashville. Almost immediately, Knight says he noticed a considerable change in his songwriting. A strength began to inform his approach, and he would go on to release seven more albums before his hiatus, including 2008’s Heart of Stone.
“There are a lot of songs I’ve written that I’ve passed by on recording for whatever reason. Some of them are my attempt at writing commercial songs to get played on radio. I realized when I get done, ‘Yeah, it’s kind of fun, but I’ve pretty much wasted my time writing it,’” he says. “They were lame attempts at writing a song that was going to make me some money. And I knew that when I was writing them.”
He continues, “A lot of times, you’re just writing songs to be writing. You might write a lame song but somewhere in that song, there’s something to write a good song about. You take a little part and turn it into something good. You can’t write four or five songs and call yourself a songwriter. I was told in Nashville, ‘I don’t want four songs. I want 50.’”
During his Nashville days, he wore out many of those songs playing them all over town. “I had a handful of songs that I was playing and thought were good enough. I did kind of get my foot in the door in Nashville with those five or six songs,” he says. “I had probably written 80 or 90 songs by the time I got to Nashville, but there was only a handful I considered good enough to play for somebody. I started to listen to more music and got more inspired. I started writing better, too.”
Knight’s humility shines through again. “I’m still not that good at putting a song together,” he says. “There are no rules as far as I’m concerned. Most times, if it feels good to me, other people are going to like it. Even if, initially, people don’t seem to care for it, and I think it’s a good song, I’m going to record it anyway. Just like ‘Becky’s Bible’ [from 2001’s A Pretty Good Guy]. I don’t think people got that for awhile. It wasn’t going to stop me from recording it. I knew that in my world, that’s a hit song. People got to hear that at every show. I knew that song would be that way. But other people didn’t.”
VIDEO: Chris Knight featuring John Prine “Mexican Home” (Lyric Video)
Almost Daylight swells with a kind of ache not many possess. His covers of Johnny Cash’s “Flesh and Blood” and John Prine’s “Mexican Home” (featuring the man himself guesting on the track) contain both the rudimentary emotional weight and his own world-weary charm. Beginning to end, the album tells the story only he could tell, and even though it’s only just released, he eyes future possibilities.
“It’d be nice to always be getting music out. There’s several things I can do. I’ve recorded songs that I let slip by, and I really don’t like doing that,” he says. “It’s not that they’re bad songs. It’s just a song I don’t necessarily like and I don’t think it’s going to be something that’ll be a big part of my life.”
He adds, “I feel like I’ve been retired ever since I started making a living in the music business. I have nothing to complain about.”
Almost Daylight is out now on Thirty Tigers.
VIDEO: Chris Knight “The Damn Truth”