Sharps and Flats: Cheri Knight

By Meredith Ochs

Published March 9, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Cheri Knight makes her living with her hands in the dirt; she makes records as a sideline. The flowers she grows on her farm in rural western Massachusetts rear their lovely faces repeatedly on Knight's sophomore solo effort, "The Northeast Kingdom," and it is through these earthy metaphors that she gradually unveils the secrets and sins lurking beneath life in a small community.

A gifted songwriter and bassist, formerly of the now-defunct Boston roots rock band the Blood Oranges, Knight came to the attention of Nashville maverick/songwriter Steve Earle when his girlfriend handed him a tape of "The Knitter" (ESD), Knight's solo debut. Earle signed her to his E-Squared label and co-produced "The Northeast Kingdom," along with Ray Kennedy, under their "twangtrust" moniker (he also immediately raised the album's pedigree by bringing in longtime friend Emmylou Harris for a vocal cameo).

It proved to be a harmonious union. Where "The Knitter" was a fine effort that established Knight as a solo artist, "The Northeast Kingdom" is nothing short of brilliant. With Kennedy and Earle at the helm, Knight's already strong material sparkles. The pair produced Earle's own latest release, "El Corazon," on which rock, country and bluegrass comfortably cohabitate. Likewise, Knight and company draw from the best of these uniquely American music forms to create their own soundscape -- electric guitars riff with pedal steel twang in a honky-tonk number, a fiddle pulls plaintively across a guitar lead, a mandolin solo chimes out in the midst of a chugging rocker, a 12-string guitar jangles intermittently. Former Blood Oranges Mark Spencer (guitar) and Jimmy Ryan (mandolin) and ex-dB Will Rigby (drums) contribute inspiring performances, which also help propel Knight's melodic, midtempo songs to greatness.

It is Knight's voice, though, that reveals itself to be the album's secret weapon upon repeated spins. Though not particularly rangy, it is remarkably expressive, gently shimmering like a sunlit pond on the surface, but loaded with emotion and subtext underneath. At times, Knight deadpans like Liz Phair, treading the same ground of obedience, revulsion and quiet rebellion that women in rock waited far too long to express. Other times, she seems closer to Son Volt's Jay Farrar, with aching tones, medicinal references and geographical imagery (though Farrar writes from the driver's seat, whereas Knight sings about the earth she tills). As the album nears its close, Knight proves to be a capable and convincing country singer, the kind that has unfortunately given way to big-hatted, spangly, multi-octave hit machines over the years.

Great roots music often connects more with a place than a time. With "The Northeast Kingdom," however, Cheri Knight goes one better, revealing the inner life of a small town woman that resonates with the country tradition, but that could only have been created by a woman weaned on rock 'n' roll.

Meredith Ochs

Meredith Ochs is a writer in New York.

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