Cheri Knight: overlooked Queen of Alt. Country

Posted by Mark Beaver, December 31, 2008 07:15pm | Post a Comment
By all measures, 1990 was a pivotal year for country-rock, or what we came to call "Alt. Country," or even "No Depression," the latter term being the title of the debut album released that year by a country-infused trio out of Belleville, IL., called Uncle Tupelo. I 'm sure I don't need to spend too much time elaborating on the merits of this band that re-awakened a slumbering genre with enough force to have that genre thereafter associated with its debut.

I will say, however, that I own a good number of t-shirts with their name emblazoned on them, as well as t-shirts for the band Son Volt, formed, after Uncle Tupelo's break-up, by Jay Farrar. Out of all proportion to any of my other band T's (and I own many), these Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt t-shirts almost without fail find me being stopped by strangers telling me how much they love those bands.

Now to my real point...

Mining similar material and existing through the same arc of time, a much lesser known band, steeped in bluegrass but pulling it into the 21st century by its fiddle-strings was rockin' its way out of northern New York State. The Blood Oranges featured singer/songwriter/mandolinist Jim Ryan, guitarist Mark Spencer, singer/songwriter/bassist Cheri Knight and drummer Ron Ward. The Blood Oranges were a really, really good band, good enough that Steven Mirkin in a June 1994 Rolling Stone said that they, "...find ways to make country-rock fusion seem like an idea with unlimited potential." They followed their 1990 debut, Corn River with 1992's Lone Green Valley and The Crying Tree in 1994. All of them strong albums and all of them more or less greeted with apathy by the record-buying populace. Then they called it quits.

Cheri Knight, for me, was always the one to watch in the band. Not to say that talent wasn't in surplus with every band member, but Knight was a star in formation. Steven Mirkin perhaps foreshadowed the good things to come from her solo career when he wrote, in a review of The Crying Tree, "Knight has the strongest solo voice, a strong, plaintive mezzo-soprano, not unlike Linda Thompson's. She is also responsible for the album's strongest tunes, "Hell's Half Acre," a crunching rocker of spurned love, and the haunting "Shine."  In fact, "haunting" is Cheri Knight's special talent. Throughout both of her solo albums, The Knitter from 1996 (East Side Digital), and 98's The Northeast Kingdom, there's a clear lean towards the melancholy. There are a few rockers mixed in and through, but both are primarily carved from that primal Appalachian-flavored blend of heartache and sorrow.

For The Knitter, Knight used a band formed of former Del Lords guitarist Eric Ambel, bassist Ray Mason, and dB's drummer Will Rigby, with some additional input from former Blood Orange Spencer and bassist Andy York, who had also helped fill out The Crying Tree.

In the space between the two albums, she found her way into the ear of Steve Earle, who signed her to his E-Squared label and produced Northeast Kingdom. Earle lent his own vocals, guitar, bouzouki, harmonium and cowbell to the mix and brought in his friend Emmylou Harris to lay her (again) haunting backing vocals onto "Dar Glasgow" and "Crawling," the album's most aching ballad. All killer, no filler...really!

I count myself lucky to have seen her perform on the Northeast Kingdom tour at AMOEBA San Francisco in 1998.

In all, Cheri Knight got the same gushing praise from the critics and lukewarm reception from the charts that The Blood Oranges had received. After Northeast Kingdom, she turned her back on recording music and slipped quietly out of sight. I miss her music. If you find a copy of any of the above-mentioned CDs, they are likely to be cheap.

Also, if you ever come across a copy of this tribute to the American truck driver, grab it!

Don Walser, Buck Owens, Kelly Willis, Son Volt, Steve Earle, Nick Lowe, The Bottle Rockets and Cheri Knight's killer "Wagon of Clay."


Relevant Tags

Nick Lowe (2), Will Rigby (1), Bottle Rockets (1), Emmylou Harris (3), Buck Owens (2), Don Walser (1), Wilco (11), Uncle Tupelo (1), Blood Oranges (1), Cheri Knight (1), No Depression (1), Ray Mason (1), Db's (2), Linda Thompson (3), Ron Ward (1), Son Volt (2), Northeast Kingdom (1), Mark Spencer (2), Jim Ryan (1), Knitter (1), Kelly Willis (1), Steve Earle (7), Eric Ambel (1), Andy York (1)