Country/Americana singer-songwriter Chris Knight is admiring the fall foliage at his farm near Slaughters, Kentucky, while talking about his Thursday night show at the Waco Hippodrome.
The fact that he’s able to balance time at home on the farm and time on the road comes from a decision long ago to make music on his terms and not Nashville’s. Knight, 57, was 37 years old when he left a career as a mine reclamation inspector and consultant to follow his country music muse.
“Sometimes I miss that job. I got to go out in the woods and the fields a lot, but something told me I got to try and do this — and here I am,” he said in a thick drawl.
Knight’s itch to write songs, something planted by a family filled with storytellers and musicians, eventually led him away from a Nashville music industry dependent on radio airplay and popular trends to a career on his own terms.
He’s known as a plain-spoken songwriter and performer, whose clear-eyed songs include “It Ain’t Easy Being Me,” “Highway Junkie” and “You Lie When You Call My Name,” recorded by the likes of Blake Shelton, John Anderson, Lee Ann Womack, Cross Canadian Ragweed, and Randy Travis.
Knight, 57, has eight albums to his credit, the latest being 2012’s “Little Victories,” and Thursday’s Hippodrome concert will show signs of success the Chris Knight way.
He’s got a three-man band behind him, for one thing, something he worked his way toward. Tired of playing the recording game the way Nashville wanted to play, where labels called the shots and took home most of the profits, Knight and his manager figured a way to pay for the records themselves, lease their use to record companies, yet still hold on to the rights.
“Once I quit fooling with the record companies, things changed . . . That was a turning point,” he recalled.
It meant slowly building his audiences to where he could do more than perform solo, but front a backing band that expanded his musical reach and strength. “I didn’t care if 20 people showed up for me and an acoustic guitar. The next time, it’d be 40 people. The next time, 60,” he said. “Before long, I was drawing a good enough crowd to bring a band.”
Those growing audiences also led Knight to turn down the opening act gigs he didn’t want to do. “I still (open shows) for artists I respect,” Knight said. “But the way I need to do this is build my own crowd.”
After nearly 20 years, Knight performs about 80 to 90 shows a year, split between band and solo gigs. It’s far from the 200-plus gig touring grind into which hungry bands chasing the Nashville ring often fall into, but it’s enough to pay bills and prove a satisfying complement to a grounded life in rural Kentucky. “I like being out on the road with these guys,” Knight said.
The road also is where Knight finds some of his loyal fans, especially Texas. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in fact, named Knight an honorary Texan in 2006.
If Thursday’s Hippodrome crowd resembles that at his usual show, it will span several generations, something that pleases the songwriter. Where some of his performing peers had to navigate a transition away from college-centric audiences as they grew older, Knight found his music accessible to listeners of all ages, from those in their 70s to as young as three years.
Given that his early songs often told stories of hard-luck characters that ended badly, he joked he hoped his music doesn’t “warp the minds” of those three-year-olds. “My body count is lower now. I don’t kill off as many people in my songs as I used to. I figure I’ve already written those songs,” he said.
Though it’s been years since his last album, Knight finds he’s getting an itch to write and record something new. “I’d like to have (a new album) out pretty soon. I’ll sit down and start working toward this,” he said. “Maybe do a little more writing and work it out.”
All in due time. Chris Knight time.