He’s been hailed as“the last of a dying breed...a taciturn loner with an acoustic guitar and a college degree” (The New York Times) and “a storyteller in the best traditions of Mellencamp and Springsteen” (USA Today). Bottom line, he’s hard-earned his reputation as one of America’s most uncompromising and respected singer/songwriters. And now with Almost Daylight, Knight delivers the most powerful –and unexpected –music of his career. Almost Daylightis very much a Chris Knight album, familiarly featuring vivid pictures of rural characters, desperate men and hardscrabble survivors. At the same time it’s unlike anything Knight has done before, with formidable testaments to compassion, redemption and even straight-up love. It’s an album both tough and tender, as bare-knuckled as it is open-hearted. “I do think there’s a cohesiveness to this album,” Knight explains in his thick Kentucky rasp. “The title is key, I suppose. Through all these songs, you could find a theme about seeking shelter.” Produced, mixed and mastered by Grammy-winner Ray Kennedy –best-known for his 30+ year creative partnership with Steve Earle as well as producing Chris’ Enough Rope (2006), Trailer II(2009)and Little Victories (2012) albums –Almost Daylightalso sounds like no other Knight record, with scorching guitars by Georgia Satellites founder and two-time Knight album producer Dan Baird, rich background vocals by Chris Clark, Siobhan Kennedy and Lee Ann Womack, and deeper instrumentation than ever before. “Chris had been playing some of these songs on the road and started developing ideas before we got to the studio,” Kennedy says. “He and I talked about keeping the Appalachian factor with banjo, fiddle, harmonica and mandolin where it felt right. It was significant that Dan was involved, as he’s the man who can play guitar with the right feeling for Chris. The background vocals really broughtthe fire, and this lead to ideas for piano, Hammond B-3, accordion and Wurlitzer electric piano. Everything evolved from the performance of each song and I let the songs dictate what they needed in order to evolve into an album.”
The album closes with yet another surprise; a joyfully raucous duet between Knight and longtime fan John Prine on Prine’s 1973 classic “Mexican Home”. “I love that song, but it took me 15 years to find a way to do it,” Knight says. “Ikept playing around, changing the vocal key and finally landed on the spot. I’ve been singing it my kitchen table for the last few years, and when we were down to the last song, I knew this should be it.” With the release of Almost Daylight, this nativeson of Slaughters, Kentucky (population 238) is eager to get back on the road and perform these songs for the faithful. Meanwhile, the singer/songwriter who was originally inspired by the likes of Prine and Earle now finds himself influencing a new generation of artists who revere Knight’s idiosyncratic talent and attitude. “There’s all kinds of different ways to make music, but this is the way I chose to do it,” Chris says. “If I don’t have something worth saying I’m not opening my mouth, which is probably why I took seven years to make this album.” And for an artist who has always defied expectations, Chris Knight’s next chapter indeed feels like the dawn of a new day. “I haven’t suited everybody, but every time I get a new fan it tells me I’m doing something right,” he says.“I think my previous records have set a precedent, if only for me at the very least. I just want people to think this one stands up to everything else I’ve done.”
Mic Harrison and the High Score are gathered for a photo shoot at what has to be the nastiest motel in Knoxville, Tenn. The wallpaper is stapled to the wall. Stains stretch from floor to ceiling. Behind the beds is a filthy little alcove with a grungy sink and a rotting cabinet. When the photographer picks up her beer up from the dresser a roach has already beat her to the next sip.
"The online review said ‘If you like to cook meth you’ll love this place!’" says High Score guitarist Robbie Trosper.
"The homeless shelter we stayed in last week was a paradise compared to this," says High Score bassist Vance Hillard.
To be honest, the group members didn’t realize that they were being put up in a homeless shelter until they’d been there a while and just a few months earlier the band bunked at a $700,000 townhouse in Columbus, Ohio, where dignitaries usually dwelled.
Such is the life of a working class rock band: Sometimes you sip from the same bottle of Scotch as Jeb Bush. Sometimes the roach beats you to your beer.
It’s the sort of thing Mic Harrison knows well. A native of Bradford, Tenn., Harrison was working in a sawmill when he was asked to join Knoxville-based band the V-Roys in 1995. The group had already been performing Harrison’s song "Sooner or Later" with V-Roys co-lead vocalist Scott Miller singing lead. The group recorded three critically-acclaimed albums and toured Europe opening for Steve Earle and acting as his band. When the V-Roys broke up on New Year’s Eve 1999, Harrison (who had released his first solo album "Don’t Bail" earlier that year) joined already established college radio favorites Superdrag. He recorded the album "Last Call for Vitriol" with the group. Superdrag disbanded in 2003 and Harrison recorded his second solo CD "Pallbearer’s Shoes" (2004) with producer Don Coffey Jr.
It wasn’t till Harrison joined forces with Knoxville band The High Score, though, that everything came together. Robbie Trosper (guitar), Brad Henderson (drums) and Vance Hillard (bass), all hail from Sevier County (the birthplace of Dolly Parton) and were kindred spirits. Together, Harrison and the High Score developed a combination of high octane honky tonk and power pop rock ‘n’ roll that has wowed audiences from Bonnaroo to Boston.
The band’s albums "Push Me On Home" (2007), "On the Right Side of the Grass" (2008) and "Great Commotion" (2010) landed the group good reviews, airplay on Americana radio stations around the country and a dedicated and enthusiastic fan base.
It’s music for people who haven’t kept up with Lady Gaga’s latest outfit or Justin Bieber’s new haircut — and maybe a few who do. It’s music that relies on strong melodies, lyrics that mean something and invites you to have a good time.
If that’s out of style, Mic Harrison and the High Score could care less.
Back in that nasty motel room the band, which now includes guitarist Chad Pelton, launches into a version of new song "The Colonel Is Dead" for inclusion in the Internet event Couch By Couchwest. A few days later the video will be named one of the picks of the event by USA Today. But tonight the group hits a beautiful harmony in the dirtiest motel room in Knoxville. The final line of the chorus is the title to the band’s new album, "Still Wanna Fight."
It’s appropriate. For a rock band in 2012, every tour seems like a battle and every show that ends with a cheering crowd is a victory.
After the photo shoot, Harrison looks out into the darkness of the motel parking lot and puffs on a cigarette:
"Yeah, and we’ve got an arsenal of songs and we know how to use ‘em."
Knoxville News-Sentinel music writer and host of WDVX-FM’s "All Over the Road"