By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Death is a big part of Cheri Knight's life. A former member of the Blood Oranges, an acclaimed but obscure roots band that dropped off the branch a few years back, she is finally getting noticed thanks to The Northeast Kingdom, an album on Steve Earle's E-Squared label certain to wind up on best-of-1998 lists. But by her own admission, she spends considerably less time making music than she does raising flowers for commercial purposes on an acre of land in Massachusetts a stone's throw from the Connecticut River. Moreover, the process of watching her crop emerge, grow, flourish, and perish in the span of a few short months has informed her songwriting and her personality.
"A lot of people fancy themselves to be in a lot more control of what goes on around them than they really are," she says. "With farming, the fact that you have no control over it is so blatantly in your face. And I've always been totally at peace with that--animals dying and the whole life-cycle thing. It's just the way it is, but people deny it. Their lifestyles are so far removed from what I experience on a daily basis."
On the surface, an album partly inspired by farming seems unlikely to excite anyone other than members of 4-H clubs. But The Northeast Kingdom is hardly a how-to manual for ag majors. Knight has a sturdy, evocative voice and a keen sense of melodrama that she demonstrates throughout "Dead Man's Curve," narrated by the ghost of a woman pining for a man who survived the car crash that killed her, and "The Hatfield Side," a mandolin-heavy account of a feud involving Hatfield, the small Massachusetts town where Knight lives with her husband, Mac. And when she lauds flower power in "Black Eyed Susie," she makes it seem downright sensual: The lines "I am faithful, but I am stained/Black Eyed Susie got me working in the rain," sung straight and true over a choogling beat, are guaranteed to make a listener think of planting seeds--in the ground or elsewhere.
Musically, Knight is eclectic: "Dar Glasgow," the disc's first song, is a Celtic dirge worthy of Richard Thompson, "Rose in the Vine" is Byrdsy rock, "White Lies" is righteous twang with an electric edge. But in spite of these influences, she's been branded an insurgent country artist as a result of her Blood Oranges past and her current association with Earle, who also plays guitar throughout Kingdom. From a marketing standpoint, this tag presents a problem; in truth, Knight doesn't sound much like Wilco or Trisha Yearwood, either. But, Knight says, "whatever quandary that presents is somebody else's problem. I don't really think about it. I just want to make music, and contrary to the way a lot of people behave in this business, it's not sports.
"I'm not competing with anyone. I'm not competing with all the other women artists out there, or all the other No Depression acts out there, or all the other singer-songwriters out there. Artistically speaking, everyone has their own job to do. And I'm not trying to knock anybody out of the way so I can stand in their place. There's already a place with my name on it, and that's where I am right now. It's where I'm supposed to be, and if it doesn't go along with the current trends, then so be it."
Knight's rural slant didn't come to her secondhand. She spent a decade raising goats on the dairy farm in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she was raised; she has also grown various types of flowers for 15 years. Hence, she acknowledges, "the farming side of me is much more developed than anything else--and it flavors my day-to-day life more than being a musician. I know it's not hip these days; everyone is so suburbanly and urbanly concerned. But I could give a shit about that. I've never lived in suburbia, which I equate with hell on earth, and even though I like cities because they give me access to things I like to do, I've never lived in a city. And I have no desire to do so."
Music is the force that pushed Knight into the larger world. She took piano lessons throughout her childhood and played in a handful of Northampton-based bands before joining Boston's Blood Oranges in 1989. The group quickly earned enough of a following to attract the attention of East Side Digital, an indie imprint that issued the group's debut album, 1990's Corn River. Another album, 1994's The Crying Tree, and an EP followed, but East Side Digital's small distribution network doomed the group to cult status. After the Oranges were pulped in the mid-'90s, Knight put together a solo album, The Knitter, that also came out on East Side Digital, but the firm went up in flames so soon after the disc was issued that only a few people got the chance to hear it. Fortunately, one of those folks was Earle, who promptly fell for a tune called "Light in the Road." The first time he spoke to Knight on the telephone, he offered her a record deal, and by last June, she was recording Kingdom in Nashville, a community whose music scene she sees as a paradox.