Harvest time

With rake in one hand and guitar in the other, Cheri Knight gets down on the farm

"A lot of Nashville musicians try to portray themselves as being down-home, but how country are a lot of those people?" she asks. "Give me a break. I can't picture most of those hat guys the way I could picture Bill Monroe--with a rake in his hand. It's all about money. You know, it's funny, but when I first went there, I realized that there were a lot of people in the industry who were huge Blood Oranges fans. And a friend of mine worked for this guy who used to have a label called Rising Tide--it was Dolly Parton's label--and she said he listened to The Knitter in his car for months. But you've got to understand: These people are in business, and they know what they're going to make money with, and they know what they're not going to make money with. And they knew they weren't going to make any money with me."

As for the Texas-born Earle, he's what Knight refers to as a renegade: "He's one of the bad kids; he's made a part-time job out of harassing the powers that be in Nashville. But everyone secretly likes him, even though they may roll their eyes when you mention his name." From the beginning, Earle's interest in Knight was musical, and he and E-Squared partner and co-producer Ray Kennedy (the duo also worked on Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, reviewed on page 77) assembled an impressive team of players to support her. On Kingdom, former Oranges Mark Spencer and Jimmy Ryan are joined by drummer Will Rigby, who once pounded the skins for the dB's; E Street Band veteran Gary Tallent; and vocalist Emmylou Harris, whose highly quixotic career path Knight greatly admires.

"She's in an interesting position, because she's gotten a lot of nods from mainstream country, but they don't play her records anymore," she says. "I mean, you never heard Wrecking Ball [Harris' 1995 Daniel Lanois-produced album] on country radio, but they respect her anyway. And the only way an artist is able to get to that point is by staying absolutely true to what they want to do. As long as you don't have any pretense about what you're doing, you can do a wide variety of things, and they will always ring true."

When it came time to put together the tunes for Kingdom, Knight took a typically organic approach. "I didn't have any idea in particular what it would sound like," she insists. "I didn't say, 'This is going to be a rock record' or, 'This is going to have some country songs on it.' I didn't care about that, because that's the easy shit to take care of. You don't even have to think about that. If you've got a really good reason to make a record, it will just happen--and I did have a good reason. I had an agenda. I have a particular lifestyle that's pretty interesting, and I thought that if I could get a slice of it on a disc, it would be really cool. I had a real bee in my bonnet about getting this New England vibe, but I didn't have to do anything special to catch it. I just had to get out of the way. I write the songs fast and then see what they are after they're done, and I can't imagine working any other way. If you do, your mind gets involved, and that's the last thing you want when you're writing music.

"One of the reasons that there's so much boring music around is that people are like, 'I'm going to do this,' and then they do it. And I'm like, why? There's so much about today's world where you know where you're going. Doesn't anybody want to go anywhere new, where they haven't been before? Doesn't anybody want to be an explorer anymore? That's what I would have been if I'd been around 200 years ago. I would've been like Lewis and Clark, always going somewhere different."

Such an attitude contradicts the stereotype of the farmer--a person who concentrates on nurturing a single section of land rather than continually searching out adventure. But Knight doesn't see the pursuit that way. "It's true that farmers don't go anywhere, but what happens on a farm is always changing," she says. "Every day, new things happen. You've just got to be attuned to look for them."

This year Knight won't be able to watch the progress at her farm. Usually she grows 30 kinds of blooms--including sunflowers, zinnias, asters, cleomes, and verbenas--that she cuts and sells at markets in Boston. But her tour forced her to make arrangements with a crew that toils on other parts of the property where she leases her patch to care for her charges.

"It's on a much more stripped-down scale than it would be if I was there," she says, "but there's nothing I can do. And I miss it. I like being a musician and making records, but if you asked me if I wanted to do this a lot--especially last week, when I had a case of bronchitis and had to cancel a show--I'd take a long time before I answered. I love playing for people, but I don't necessarily love being on the road. So I'm doing this because I feel like it's my end of the bargain to go out and play for the record as much as I can. My record company put a lot of sweat and time and money into the project; it's nothing compared to what a major label would do, but it's a lot to me. Plus, I believe in the record, and I'd like for people to get a chance to hear it."

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