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.
"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."
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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."
If only a handful actually do, Knight will probably deal with it differently than most of her peers. After all, she's well-grounded. "Farming has given me a perspective that's part of my life and my outlook," she says. "It allows me a certain sense of peace about things. I mean, every year I've had crop failures for one reason or another--not the whole thing, but part of it. And a lot of times, there's nothing you can do. It doesn't mean I don't work hard, and I don't get really invested in stuff. But when things don't work out, what can you do? Make the best of it and try again next season.