Coal Miner's Brother

The tomatoes were good this year. They came up out of that fine Kentucky soil that blankets the coal mines and connects the hardscrabble towns, bringing Chris Knight back home to the rolling hills of his heart.

"It's pretty good out here," the singer-songwriter deadpans about his 40-acre spread down the road from Slaughters, where he grew up.

Knight and his rockin' combo hit Houston September 23, the release date of his new album, The Jealous Kind, but you know what, he ain't particularly interested in discussing this country-rockin' business and what hole he fits in and where it all leads from here. Shoot, the boy's been home with his wife, Debbie, and the kids and he writes a song now and then about people he understands and he waters a few plants for tomorrow's dinner and when the album comes out he'll go call on Texas and the South where his people are because that's what a workingman does.

On the telephone Knight is so soft-spoken and cornpone-polite it's hard to connect him to the rural madness consuming his characters, like the lust-fueled desperado trucker in "The Hammer Going Down" on his Decca debut, a song that smolders through a desperate tale until it burns a clutch.

The dichotomy might not play with those who demand honky-tonk heroes to be plagued by evil spirits. Knight hollers Dixie somewhat to the generic and regular-guy side of Steve Earle with the simple elegance of a road winding through the magnolia dawn, in a manner free of Earle's notorious rant. Leave the screeds to the demon-possessed; he'll rock about truck-stop queens and long black highways and badasses balling that jack to nowhere.

These backwoods song-stories begin in Slaughters, an agricultural afterthought of about 200 that basked in the region's coal boom before the high-sulfur rock of the area became politically incorrect with the EPA. Down the road and over the hill, only 35 miles away, is the birthplace of Bill Monroe.

Knight, born in 1960, didn't much cotton to bluegrass. He heard Aunt Vicky Lou's record collection and George Jones and Tom T. Hall on the radio and he watched The Johnny Cash Show on TV, the likes of which pleased his parents -- David, a pipeline foreman for Texas Gas Transmission Corporation, and Brenda, who worked in a shirt factory up in Madisonville, a carburetor company over in Bowling Green and a bake shop in Possum Trot.

When the hormones kicked in he found folkie-rocky songsters like John Prine, Jackson Browne, J.J. Cale and Dan Fogelberg, then the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top.

Chris was about 15 when his older brother, who worked second shift in the coal mines and drank beer till sunup, bought himself a guitar. It was a funky box, the strings about half an inch above the neck, good blister-forming, callus-building strings.

"I come home from school one day and there was a gee-tar there and a chord book, and I started playing that day," he remembers.

His brother was too busy pulling coal and drinking beer to worry about sharing his box. Besides, Chris says, "He played it whenever he could get away from me."

Before long big bro noticed Chris was picking up on this guitar stuff pretty good and he bought him a 1975 Martin Sigma. "I was supposed to pay him back for it. I don't know whether I ever did or not," he says.

Learning the Prine songbook, he played for family and friends. That was cute enough, but music didn't seize him until years later, about the time he graduated from Western Kentucky with an agriculture degree, when he began writing one night and didn't stop, giving his characters their stories.

He wrote while working for the Kentucky Department for Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, helping to restore mine-ravaged land, a job he would hold from 1989 until 1994. He sent a few compositions to Nashville. "Got a lot of encouragement," he says, "some hand-written letters from people telling me they liked what I was doin' and to keep on doin' it."

On one trip to Music City he passed an audition for songwriter's night at the famous Bluebird Cafe. "The night I played, this guy in the audience liked some stuff I was doing."

That would be song-plugger (and native Houstonian) Frank Liddell of Bluewater Music.

"We got to talking; I went down the next morning and played some more songs for him. He basically told me I needed to keep writing."

Back in Kentucky, he wrote and worked and made little contact with Nashville. He polled his soul: Would he give himself to his songs or just go on dabbling? "It kept me awake at night, thinking that I really needed to do it because I'd be sorry if I didn't go take a chance."

In January 1993 he called Liddell. "Got some new songs," he told him.

Liddell loved the tunes but wasn't sure about this hillbilly who had a real career and didn't seem particularly driven by Nashville-obsessive standards. He offered him a publishing contract, and Knight, who had no family at the time, gave his notice at work.

"I actually took a pretty good cut in pay to take the writing deal. But it wasn't a big deal."

Infiltrating Nashville through the pen was alluring. "Frank thought I had some commercial potential as far as writing for other people, but he also told me that I needed to record the songs myself and start working on getting a record deal. He encouraged me to do my own thing, writing what I wanted to write."

And surprise, these Nashville cats were okay. "I hooked up with some really good people down there. They took a real interest in what I was doing. They seemed to get it. They didn't try to change me that much. I've always been a little leery of somebody trying to change things."

They didn't even leash him. He could plow his 40 acres till sundown and hang out with the coal busters all night for all they cared. "They felt that what I did had a lot to do with where I was from and what I did day to day. They liked the idea that I had my own deal going on."

Knight's 1998 self-titled debut, with Liddell producing, struck a Southern rock/alt-country chord that thankfully wasn't happening at the time -- even the Kentucky Headhunters were out of fresh meat -- and thus avoided contrivance. And it snarled, thanks to guitar slingers such as Richard Bennett (Marty Stuart, Earle) and David Grissom (Joe Ely, John Mellencamp).

The songs were of strugglers, stragglers, strangers and survivors, sung in a voice worn as the hills and lurching down highways we've driven before but that beckon still. He followed with A Pretty Good Guy and now The Jealous Kind, on which he achieves, on a song called "Broken Plow," that stark, almost-Springsteenish/Nebraska quality or that Woody Guthrie plaint that makes you weep for the American soul.

Now it's time to return to work. "It's not a bad deal. When you got a record out, that's the way it goes," he says, like a man headed to the night shift.