Two writers follow their visions.
By Michael McCall
MARCH 23, 1998: Chris Knight and Fred Eaglesmith are two of the best country/roots-based songwriters of the '90s. They both excel at capturing slices of life in ways that few Nashville writers dare, and they both create bare-knuckled, punchy tales about characters who work hard and live harder. Some of their songs depict down-to-earth folks who find peace in quiet pleasures and basic values, but most of their tunes focus on people who hurt themselves and others in acts of loud desperation. Both men like lean, economical lyrics packed with tension and emotion, and they display a compassion for those who find their way through life as well as for those who don't.
Given all they have in common, it shouldn't be such a surprise that these two men would find each other worthy cowriters. It's just as interesting, however, to note how much they differ. Knight, a 37-year-old newcomer, is the bright new hope of Music Row. For those who believe that mainstream country music banks too much on lightweight themes and overly sentimental love songs, Knight's newly released debut album offers a promising alternative, full of gritty stories and multi-dimensional characters.
Eaglesmith, on the other hand, isn't likely to get the kind of major-label muscle currently being flexed for Knight. At 41 years old, he has already established a career outside the narrow creative confines of Music Row. But age and experience have given Eaglesmith a well-formed musical personality; he knows where he wants to go with his music--and it isn't toward the layered, formulaic sound that country radio prefers.
Rather than smooth his natural edges, Eaglesmith has gradually roughened his music to match the harder realities reflected in his songs. His most recent collection, Lipstick, Lies & Gasoline, includes songs that clang and burr with the sparse yet noisy boisterousness of recent work by Tom Waits. On other selections, he employs everything from acoustic waltzes to straight-ahead country to down-and-dirty roots rock.
When asked why he decided to present his material in such an unvarnished style, Eaglesmith explains, "I don't decide. When I'm on, [the songs] decide for me." He explains how one of his recent songs, "Pontiac," started out as a nostalgic tune about a classic American car made in 1963. Calling the original version of the song "wimpy," the singer/songwriter says it evolved over a period of three years into something altogether different. Though the same souped-up muscle car remains the central motif, it winds up being used as a getaway vehicle by a guy who robs a store. The music bristles with power and distress.
Eaglesmith realizes that his music will likely appeal to certain types of fans while putting off those in search of breezy entertainment, familiarity, or relaxation. "My position is to piss people off a little bit," he says. "I want to jar them rather than comfort them. I think there's a great sense of staleness in music today, and I don't want to add to that."
He believes that a lack of adventure pervades the relatively new Americana and alternative-country genres, which are the radio formats most likely to embrace Eaglesmith's adventurous sound. "There's a mentality there that takes the attitude of, 'Let's ride this pony now,' " he says. "I don't want to tow that line." Instead, he looks to people like Waits and Neil Young for inspiration. "They never give people exactly what they expect, and they don't stay in the same place very long."
By Music Row standards, Chris Knight has more in common with Eaglesmith than with most other country singers. For example, on "Love and a .45," a song Knight cowrote with Eaglesmith, the Kentuckian spins a tale of a lonely cop and a desperate prostitute. After the woman shoots a violent john in self-defense, the cop covers for her, and the two end up finding comfort in each other. "Love and a .45," Knight sings with an earthy growl, "one'll kill ya, one'll keep you alive."
That Knight tackles such subjects--hell, that he writes his own material and presents it with a lack of artifice--separates him from most '90s country singers. Producers Frank Liddell and Greg Droman go to great lengths to keep Knight's raw ability intact while giving the music the kind of fullness and smooth dynamics that might get the singer's work on the radio. For the most part, they succeed--only a couple of songs sound overly polished. But those who've heard Knight sing in nightclubs, or those who've heard his well-circulated demo tapes, know that his words cut deepest when presented as starkly and directly as possible.
Perhaps therein lies the greatest difference between Eaglesmith and Knight. The former makes no compromises, while Knight, being on a Nashville label, has to. He's written a few outrageously effective songs, and he certainly has the guts to take on subjects that most successful Nashville songwriters avoid. But not everything on his debut packs as much punch as he'd like; songs about the woes of the small farmer fail to bring freshness to a familiar topic. And while a song honoring motherhood is built on an original idea, it doesn't have the power of Knight's best work.
When at his best, however, Knight deserves the attention he's being afforded. Whether he's detailing the failures of a self-destructive guy in "It Ain't Easy Being Me" or writing with potent precision about how violence and dysfunction extend from generation to generation in "William," he's an unusually capable songwriter and performer. Such material suggests that he has the goods to make substantial music for years to come.
As Knight continues, it will be interesting to see how his industry career develops. Will he be allowed to take chances and follow his own vision? Or will he be pressured to decide between diluting his ideas or losing the corporate backing of a major record company?
The answers to such questions don't lie in one singer's livelihood; they lie in the current state and in the future direction of country music. For his part, Knight may have already indicated how he'll handle record company coercion: During a recent overlong video shoot, he punched out a Decca Records marketing executive who asked him to curtail his drinking. That doesn't sound like a guy willing to compromise his personal goals.
Although I'd love to be proven wrong, my guess is Knight won't be opening any major awards shows soon. Instead, like many of the best Nashville songwriters in the last two decades, he'll likely garner some critical acclaim and find a solid cult following of fans. But when radio fails to accept him, he'll be cast out to fend for himself. He might bounce from major label to major label; or he might take up with an independent. Either way, he'll probably end playing to enthusiastic crowds in small theaters and urban nightclubs. As artists from Guy Clark to Steve Earle have shown, it's not such a bad road to travel. But it still doesn't say much for how country music treats some of the biggest talents it recruits.
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