Chris Knight,
Heart of Stone
(Drifter's Church, 2008)

Mad Buffalo,
(Mad Buffalo, 2008)

Heart of Stone and Wilderness can both be characterized justly as works of rural folk-rock as opposed to country music. Besides being the creations of gifted artists with clear and specific ideas of whom and what they're about, however, that's about all they have in common.

I've admired Chris Knight, three of whose recordings I have reviewed in this space, since his first, eponymously titled release in 1998. That recording, like the early ones that followed, generated comparisons to John Prine and Steve Earle (and later John Mellencamp), though it ought to be clear by now that Knight has staked out his own little corner of the world, geographical as much as musical. Whether he delivers his songs in spare acoustic-folk settings or full-studio guitar-rock arrangements, Knight's country is ... well, the country in both senses of the word.

It's not a happy vision of either. Knight's approach is the equivalent of a blunt instrument dispatching bruising, blood-spilling blows. The landscape is mostly modern rural Kentucky, where Knight lives. If it's not exactly the sound- or culture-scape of old-time Kentucky songsters like the immortal Roscoe Holcomb, it's not that far from it either. Some of Knight's best songs -- there are no second-rate ones -- echo Holcomb's performance of "Combs Hotel Burned Down" (which you can hear on his 2003 Smithsonian Folkways retrospective An Untamed Sense of Control). That ballad, about a fatal fire in small-town Kentucky, conjures up a whole universe of fear and terror, while also moving and -- yes -- entertaining the listener.

Most of Knight's characters, largely tormented small-town people, suffer broken relationships of various kinds, drug and alcohol demons, poverty, job loss, and problems with legal authority. Loud electric guitars and creaky mountain fiddles interact to stirring effect, underscoring a favorite Knight theme: that rural America is caught between the pull of its hard past and the demands of an unstable present racing into an unpromising future.

To my hearing the most immediately compelling cut is "Danville," presumably inspired by the well-known Appalachian folksong "Danville Girl," except told from the woman's point of view. Rather than a romantic hobo ballad, this "Danville" relates the bitter situation of a battered wife who escapes her drunken, violent husband. The refrain ends with a raw and unambiguous testament: "She ain't going back to Danville till she's dead." The arrangement is built around a neo-Appalachian band with Tami Rodgers's fiddle put to chilling use, as if itself the voice of exhaustion, relief, lost time and bare hope.

Unlike Knight, who eschews pop notes entirely in favor of full-force rock and folk, Mad Buffalo -- not a band but the nom de plume of singer-songwriter Randy Riviere -- isn't, in fact, mad at anybody, and so his folk-rock is sweetened, albeit not sickeningly, with pop. It's pop notes and harmonies in the fashion of 1970s California country-rock bands. In Riviere's case, though, the pop is more spice than flavor, and it's neatly integrated into a sound that may cause you to think of a more accessible, more coherent Neil Young.

His material isn't as deep or as disturbing as The Band's, but in a broad sense he and it are hoeing the same row. Riviere's narratives are set mostly in 19th-century America. Among his subjects are the movement into the West, the Civil War, the breaking of new soil and the freewheeling or displaced men and women who found themselves on the frontier. He's an accomplished lyricist with a keen eye.

"Old Kentucky," the closest approximation to something that resembles an actual old folk song, is a beauty on every level, not least as pure words on the page: "There's cards on the table / A shell of a man / But these hills of Kentucky / Stand." On the other hand, there is this (fortunately very rare) lapse (in "Rainy Day"): "Remember when we lost our days / Singing Hank songs in your old man's hay." Ouch. That's the sort of lazy, schmaltzy imagery one might have expected from somebody who, though he's never left New York City, tries to fathom how we hayseeds out here in Flyover Country pass our time. (Still and all, in the interest of full disclosure, this confession: My wife and I have a cat named Hank.)

If there's no perfection in this imperfect world, Wilderness remains pretty much undiluted pleasure: not only the lyrics but the rich melodies sung in Riviere's un-wimpy tenor, with arrangements that give space to acoustic instruments (including fiddle, banjo and mandolin) as lovingly as to electric ones. My definition of an exceptionally rewarding album is one that keeps me coming back. I dare you: Try listening to Wilderness just once. No, it didn't work for me either.

review by
Jerome Clark

15 November 2008

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