My fingers ache as they squeeze the steering wheel. Sweat drips from my palms and forehead as I desperately attempt to stay locked in place. Thirty-mile-an-hour winds bounce semi-trucks left and right, terrifying me as I stare at the mere inches left between my sedan and a concrete barrier.
A screaming ambulance blasts past me, navigating through a sea of parked cars on Interstate 35 south of Austin. A small silver vehicle is turned sideways, smashed against a median wall. Plastic debris trickles across the pavement in the relentless frigid wind.
After winding through a few pitch-black country roads in New Braunfels, constantly adjusting my high beam headlights, the brightly-lit River Road Ice House appears. A solid, loyal fan base linger around inside, willing to brave the hectic conditions for a chance to hear Chris Knight.
Knight leaves his words in the songs, walking back and forth in black jeans and a rolled-up t-shirt. The audience is paying attention as he tells stories of rural hardships, the cowboy hats and boots convince me they’ve lived the same experiences in some way.
Chris Knight performs at the River Road Ice House. Photo by Andrew Blanton.
Neon signs illuminate the dance hall, advertising every type of North and Central American beer I can think of. Clouds of smoke in the air remind me of easier times, the river town is one of the few cities left in Texas without an indoor cigarette ban. Someone would likely be drug out on a log if they pulled out a vape here.
Knight’s stare could tell you a lot about his songwriting. It’s not depressing, or low down either, it’s mere honesty.
“I had an old dog, lived fifteen years. A Train got his leg, a ‘coon got his ear,” Knight sings on Old Man. “He loved to hunt. He loved to fight. The way I used to be on Saturday night.”
Knight found a void in songwriting that few attempt to fill. Almost anyone covering his work would appear as if they were acting, like a millenial with a corn cob pipe. He takes the voice of those living a taxing, rural life. The struggle of hard labor and broken homes, of unrelentless pride when many would drown in their sorrows, of an imperfect, unfair hand in life that still seems rewarding to a grandfather on a front porch. There’s no doubt in my mind that Jason Isbell was listening to Knight’s records when he wrote Speed Trap Town.
Knight sips a Miller Light between songs, joking with fans in the crowd that shout requests at every opportunity.
“You really think I’m going to do a show and not play that song,” Knight assures them, though they don’t feel the need to stop reminding him.
Many unfamiliar with Knight’s work may have heard his writing on the country charts over the years. Knight started out as a staff writer in Nashville in the early nineties for Bluewater, Warner-Chappell, and Universal Music Group, penning hits like “Highway Junkie” for Randy Travis.
Knight is short with his words as we chat about his lengthy career in writing and performing.
“I’m not writing as much as I was, and the subject matter may have changed,” Knight said. “As far as inspiration, I mean, think of something up in your head and write a song about it if you want to.”
Knight doesn’t focus much on churning out uninspired material either, often dodging fan’s demands for a new album.
“Sometimes I tell people I’m not ever putting another record out,” Knight jokes, “because I don’t feel like doing an interview when I’m at the merch table, you know what I mean? When somebody gets into the interview mode that’s when I’m like ‘I’ll let you know when I get one out, you’ll be the first to know.”
Knight’s carved out a place for him in an often changing business, traveling light with a a few Gibson J-45 guitars and backing band.
Knight’s Gibson guitars. Photo by Andrew Blanton.
“You make it work if your going to do it,” Knight said. “Just because you like a bus doesn’t mean you have to be in a bus. I’d have to get two or three extra part-time jobs just to pay for the bus.”
Knight wasn’t given a road map by the older generation, he worked his way up from the bottom with sheer determination.
“I don’t know that I got any advice,” Knight said. “People liked my songs, so I got out and played them. I started out playing for ten and fifteen people, just me and my guitar sometimes, next time I’d go back there would be thirty people there.”
Knight offers some advice for the young songwriters looking to follow his path, but his material and story should speak for itself.
“There’s a lot of people out there that play whether they’re any good or not,” Knight said. “I went from a steady job to being a songwriter, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be doing this very long if something didn’t start happening. Don’t screw away your life trying to be in the music business, that’s probably the best advice.”