Album of the Week, March 1: The Northeast Kingdom by Cheri Knight
March 1, 2015 Leave a comment
Cheri Knight emerged as a shining new talent in the Massachusetts alt-bluegrass group Blood Oranges. The band’s bassist, she was also an occasional songwriter and lead vocalist. Her strong, plaintive voice and eye for detail contributed significantly to the band’s charm and power. After two lauded but commercially ignored albums, the band folded. Knight moved to upstate New York, where she runs a flower farm, but decided to go back into the studio for a solo effort. The Knitter, released in 1996, featured contributions from ex-dBs Will Rigby, omnipresent roots rocker Eric Ambel (who had produced Blood Oranges), and former bandmate Mark Spencer. It showcased Knight’s growing confidence as a singer and writer, staking out a distinctive musical terrain. Through the Rigby connection, Knight came to the attention of maverick roots rocker and country outlaw Steve Earle, who brought her to Nashville and helmed her stunning sophomore effort.
|Title||The Northeast Kingdom
|Label||E-Squared||Release Date||January 20, 1998|
|Producer||“The Twangtrust” (Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy)|
|U.S. Chart||n/c||U.K. Chart||n/c|
Earle was a perfect fit for Knight’s sound. Like him, she stakes out her own territory, more interested in making wonderful music than the labels that might be applied to it. The Northeast Kingdom can loosely be considered alt-country, but that country is the small towns and back roads of everywhere, given spirit and heart by Knight’s love of the open spaces of upstate New York and rural New England. She understands the strength of the human heart — even when it’s lost or broken — and the dark power of secrets that runs through seemingly tight-knit communities. These forces, given voice with her confident, open, sometimes gritty mezzo-soprano, populate an amazing array of songs with a common thread of humanity. A stellar band featuring Earle, Rigby, Spencer, former Blood Orange mandolinist Jimmy Ryan, and others provide sympathetic backing, giving the songs the space and respect they deserve.
Dar Glasgow is a perfect opener. Anchored by the Celtic drone of Earle’s harmonium, it’s the tale of a strong-willed dairy farmer who rejects the courtship of a tempting man to tend her charges. It’s dark and haunting — narrated from beyond the grave — but also bold and independent. Knight channels the energy of the titular character without apology, setting the stage for this magical journey. Things get jangly on Rose In the Vine, a sad song of lost love. It’s one of several floral metaphors on the album, reflecting Knight’s other passion. She blends the two flawlessly, and the sense of beauty hidden in the brambles is a perfect image for this smart track. If Wishes Were Horses has a laid-back traditional country feel that nicely underscores the regret of a woman spurned by love and community both. “Nobody remembers that this town once was mine,” she intones, and things get sad from there.
While the literal Northeast Kingdom is along Vermont’s Canadian border, the spirit of that land is a perfect fit for all the wide open landscapes of Knight’s characters. The title track is a grim, haunting reflection of the power of secrets and the lengths hopeful people will pursue to get what they want and need. “In these houses of stark white, we’d have you think that nothing ever happens.” Anchored by a swirling guitar and subtly propulsive drums, Knight sneaks through the dark night streets, trying to find something better than the way life is lived on the surface. It’s a standout among great songs and a flawless statement of purpose.
Floral images return in Black Eyed Susie. On the literal level, it’s a celebration of the joy and hardship of caring for growing things. Knight uses her experience and strong narrative voice to bring the farm to life. It serves as a nice symbol for all kinds of love, care, support, and sacrifice, building on the album’s themes. Crawling is an aching song of loss worthy of old country masters. Beaten down — but still moving — Knight moans through the mostly acoustic track with just the right flawed energy. A great harmony vocal from Emmylou Harris is just the right touch.
Knight’s masterpiece is The Hatfield Side, a ballad of community spirit. The story of competition between two towns and their annual ritual tug-of-war, it’s a stirring testament to the ways we learn to survive and cope. Knight turns in her finest vocal, clear and chiming, while Tammy Rogers’ fiddle drives the action along. Rising above its simple story of rural life, The Hatfield Side is a masterful slice of Americana.
On White Lies, things take on a honky tonk feel, with Knight turning in a charming performance as an abandoned woman who gives as she gets. Smart and stubborn, it’s a nice bit of sequencing, mixing things up without losing momentum. Dead Man’s Curve finds her taking a rock and country trope and making it her own. Narrated by the victim of the crash rather than the survivor, the track is a poignant look at the perils of trying to escape the tedium of smalltown life, inspiring and tragic by turns.
All Blue is a charmingly jaunty song that finds Knight looking for her lost love. She admonishes his wanderlust, “you’re just trading chains for shackles when anywhere is home.” It’s a smart road song that wanders through her rural landscape and another highlight of the album. The band pulls out all the stops for Sweetheart, a song of loss and betrayal that rocks and surges. “This town just read the whole story,” she sings, bringing all the threads together as she comes to grips with an infidelity that she’s the last to understand. Black Eyed Susie Reprise is a perfect wrap-up, credited to “all who came to play.” More than a simple coda to the previous song, it’s a restatement of the power of nurturing, even in difficult circumstances, and a smart, independent rebuttal to the dark forces at work throughout this song cycle.
Despite her talent and strong supporting cast, Knight’s solo career got no better attention than her work with Blood Oranges. More than 15 years after The Northeast Kingdom, she’s still farming but hasn’t returned to music. That’s a tragic loss for anyone who appreciates great singing, smart songwriting, and a finely crafted sense of place and purpose in music. With The Northeast Kingdom, Cheri Knight created a magnificent set of songs that transcends genres and celebrates humanity.
FURTHER LISTENING: If Cheri Knight performs on it, it’s worth having. All four discs that precede The Northeast Kingdom are pretty amazing in their own right.
- Corn River by Blood Oranges – a stellar, remarkably consistent debut with tight playing and great songs. Knight primarily offers her sterling bass skills and harmonies, but her lead vocal on Thief hints nicely at the power of her later work.
- Lone Green Valley by Blood Oranges – a charming placeholder EP with one great Knight original and a stunning version of the traditional Shady Grove.
- The Crying Tree by Blood Oranges – not quite as consistent as the debut, but a solid set with high points that exceed the other two discs; Knight wrote and sings lead on a number of tracks including the powerful Shadow of You.
- The Knitter – Knight’s solo debut is a huge leap forward, building on her Crying Tree tracks. It’s a bit uneven but never disappointing and the best songs rival anything on The Northeast Kingdom.