Fred's Country Fried Rock: Chris Knight, “Down the River” (2001)

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You might have heard a Chris Knight song, even if you don’t recognize his name. They’ve been recorded by plenty of names you would recognize – Randy Travis, John Anderson, Montgomery Gentry and Blake Shelton among them. But the songs you probably haven’t heard are much better than the ones you might have caught on the radio.

Knight is absolutely one of the best songwriters out there right now, not only in country, but in any genre. The Kentucky native’s music has a Midwestern farmboy flavor that will remind you a little of John Mellencamp, but the simplicity and darkness of his songs and delivery are more reminiscent of Johnny Cash.

Most of his best compositions are stark and quiet, just his voice and an acoustic guitar, but they pack a ton of power. The lyrics are poetic, and the songs, even if you haven’t experienced what he’s singing about, speak to the soul of someone with a rural or blue-collar upbringing. I can’t imagine anyone listening to Knight and not becoming a fan.

There is, of course, a long and bloody history of the murder/revenge story in country music. It goes back well before Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. The theme, in fact, probably dates back to the first melody ever hummed by a human. “Down the River” tells the tale of a man and his brother out one night running trotlines when a local bully that his brother had a fight with comes motoring down the river. They pass by, but as the brothers are heading back to the dock with their catch, a shot rings out and the narrator’s brother falls from the boat. Unable to find a body, the authorities rule it a drowning, but the subject of the song knows better and sets out to get his revenge.

There’s no bravado, celebration or feeling of vindication in that payback as there often are in these songs. It’s cold, dark and doesn’t bring him any peace. It’s simply something that he’s got to do for his murdered brother, and he does it efficiently, still filled with regret and mourning the loss of his sibling.

I find it pretty easy to put myself in the shoes of the song’s subject. I don’t know how many nights I’ve spent running trotlines with my brother on a quiet stretch of water. I can tell you, as much as I love it, that I’ve never viewed a night on the water in quite the same way after hearing this song.

Not all of Knight’s songs are dark, and he even has some more upbeat full-band stuff. But for me, he shines when it’s just voice and guitar and an often painful story. Songs like this one, “Long Black Highway” and “Enough Rope” keep the storytelling tradition of country alive and, for me, rival the best ever written.

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Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips is a veteran entertainment writer with a love of hard rock and heavy metal. He has written music reviews, columns and feature stories for several newspapers, Web sites and a national wire service, while running a stand-alone site called Hall of the Mountain King in various places and incarnations since 1997. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelse reviews.com.
Fred Phillips
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