The first clue came in the garden scenes in "Wishing Well" ("She's standing in the garden with a white dress on/Silver roses in her hand," details the first), a song from Cheri Knight's 1995 debut THE KNITTER. Next came the songs "Rose in the Vine" and "Black Eyed Susie" on her recent E-Squared release THE NORTHEAST KINGDOM. I mean, almost every review of KINGDOM I've read contains the word "organic" or "home-grown," and the best description of Ms. Knight's music is roots rock, for crying out loud.
"Well, there's a farm right down the road from this house that's owned by a friend," offers Knight from her kitchen in Western Massachusetts, with just a hint of amusement in her voice suggesting she hadn't expected a lead-off question about her secret life of plants. "I've done a lot of farm work throughout my life, and I'd do things for him once in a while. One summer I was just working out there on the crew, helping him - he really wanted to get some flowers going because it's a vegetable farm and they do farmers markets... The following year I had the opportunity to kind of make it my own business. It's kind of the equivalent of being a sharecropper: it's his land, but it's my business."
Of course, Knight's cultivation skills extend outside the dirt fields, or else it's doubtful we'd be talking about her here. She's been singing forever and survived almost 20 years of piano lessons, sharing her skills with a handful of bands before hooking up with Boston-based country- and bluegrass-conscious rockers Blood Oranges in 1989. In that gifted quartet, traditional-music songcraft met rock'n'roll dynamics, with Jimmy Ryan's mandolin rubbing elbows with Mark Spencer's frequently loud guitar and Knight's solid electric bass on tunes about both valleys and alleys. A cover of the standard "Dig a Hole" on their first album, CORN RIVER, showed that the two worlds could certainly coexist, if not in peace at least in harmony. Although Ryan was the band's chief vocalist, Knight's occasional turns in the spotlight were more often than not highlights: CORN RIVER's "Thief" (its "Halfway back from Montgomery" opening line inevitably making me think of John Prine's angel); "All the Way Down" from the 5-song LONE GREEN VALLEY EP, probably the most powerful song in the Blood Orange canon and Knight's first writing credit for the band; and "Shadow of You" and the title track from the group's swan song THE CRYING TREE, both also Knight compositions.
The members of Blood Oranges went their separate ways not long after THE CRYING TREE - quite amicably, as their continued involvement in each others' solo projects makes perfectly clear - and Knight's THE KNITTER beat Ryan's WOODEN LEG out of the blocks by about a month at the end of '95, with both among the last releases put out by the gone-but-not-forgotten East Side Digital. THE KNITTER was an impressive outing, most notably the midalbum yang-and-yin pairing of the loud "Light in the Road" and the gentle "Last Barn Dance," as well as a swell cover of the Bottle Rockets' "Very Last Time," which closed out the proceedings. And perhaps most importantly, it made a fan out of one of her future bosses.
You see, a little while back, a rep for an Austin, TX-based publicity group was trying to get Steve Earle to sign Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams to E-Squared, the Nashville-based label that Earle co-runs. "So, she made him (Earle) a tape," explains Knight. "And on the other side she just threw on some of the other stuff she was working to radio. "Light in the Road" was the first song on the B side, and I guess she didn't rewind the tape or something, so that was the first thing he heard. Apparently, he said" - and Knight does a pretty admirable Earle impersonation at this point - "'I just kept hitting rewind all the way to Nashville'." Two years later, THE NORTHEAST KINGDOM became E-Squared's fourth full-length release, following albums from the V-roys, Ross Rice, and 6 String Drag.
A lot's been made out of the haunting, near-gothic feel that permeates much of the album, with a write-up in PEOPLE magazine offering the observation that the album is "more evocative of Appalachia than the Berkshires" - suggesting that all that lover-killing stuff takes place only in this "Appalachia" place, which doesn't exist in my dictionary or, according to PEOPLE, in Massachusetts. Knight begs to differ: "The deal is, the Appalachian Mountain range is really what it refers to. It wasn't the name of a place first, it was the name of a mountain range first. That kind of music and that kind of vibe does not stop at the Mason-Dixon line. New Hampshire looks a lot like the Smokey Mountains. . . . (Up north) things are just as twisted as they can be anywhere else. Rural life is rural life, let's face it. It's always been the same." Case in point is the KINGDOM song "The Hatfield Side," which details her hometown's ancient feud with its neighbors and the rather unique way the two burgs approach their differences.
The new album also reveals a versatility that wasn't nearly as apparent on THE KNITTER. There are atmospheric songs (the title track and "Dar Glasgow," the latter featuring supporting vocals from Emmylou Harris ), country rockers, plain ol' rockers, a honky-tonking cheating tune, and the emotional powerhouse "Crawling." Not a bad little band Knight's assembled either, with Ryan, Spencer, Earle, and crackerjack veteran drummer Will Rigby forming the core. But more than anything it's parts of songs, little moments that are sticking with me: the way "Rose in the Vines" blasts in with "Dar Glasgow" still fading out; the "needles and pins" line in "If Wishes Were Horses," which brings to mind Jackie DeShannon (who, I'm guessing, did not log a lot of field hours in her time); Ryan's infectious mandolin hook in the chorus of "All Blue"; the shimmering "Crystal Blue Persuasion" organ in "The Northeast Kingdom"; and every single heart-torturing second of "Crawling."
And for what it's worth, I don't hear some apparently mythical Appalachia in her music, just the hard work of a woman with a green thumb and a dusky voice who happens to live in small-town Western Massachusetts.
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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)