Believe In The Song: A Conversation with Chris Knight

By Carey Hereford

Photo courtesy of the artist

Chris Knight is a living reminder that it’s never too late to pursue a dream. A music enthusiast from an early age, the singer/songwriter worked in land reclamation after graduating from Western Kentucky University. Once he heard Steve Earle on the radio in 1986, Knight decided to try his own hand at songwriting. Knight landed his first record deal at age 37 and has built a career on honest songs that reflect his rural Kentucky roots. In addition to his own releases, Knight has found his songs recorded by Randy Travis, Blake Shelton and John Anderson among many others. On Friday, May 31, Knight will perform at Saturn. Recently, he spoke with us by phone.

Birmingham Stages: Chris, thank you for spending the time to talk with us. How did growing up in Kentucky affect your music career as a whole?

Chris Knight: There was a lot to write about – I had a pretty big family. There was a lot going on back at the time.

Birmingham Stages: What inspired you to move away from working in the coal mines in Kentucky to become a singer/songwriter?

Knight: It was always in the back of my mind to try to do something in the music business. I started writing songs and easing my way in. Then I started making trips to Nashville about five or six years later. I had good people helping me and felt like it was a good time to do it. If I didn’t do it then, I never would have.

Birmingham Stages: What made you want to start your own record label? What are the pros and cons of having your own label?

Knight: Well, you don’t have people telling you what to do. You know it’s started to work out better because we cut the middle man out. We had access to smaller publicity and distribution and all that. It was just time do it. I had been through Decca Records and Dualtone Records – they were good for me, but I had three records for Dualtone and I just thought it was time to move on.

Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process work? Where do you find inspiration?

Knight: I would just, you know grab a guitar and come up with a line or two and build it from there. I might be driving down the road and think of something, and just keep foolin’ with it. It comes around, some for me take four years, some songs I can get written in a day or maybe two hours.

Birmingham Stages: With such a large catalog of music, how do you keep your older songs fresh?

Knight: I just play them. I have set changes from time to time, but other than that I just play all of them. I just go out and tour on what I got, and it seems to work out okay. I mean a lot of people want a new record six months after you put one out. But I’ve toured on this one for seven years and it’s time to get one out. I just finished one and that will be released sometime this year.

Birmingham Stages: Which album of yours are most proud? Why?

Knight: I like [2001 release] ​Pretty Good Guy a​ lot. I​ got more used being in a studio and more used to singing. I just think it’s more me with the production and all that.

Birmingham Stages: What album by another musician is your favorite?

Knight: I don’t know, probably ​Running On Empty​ – Jackson Browne. I was just 17 or 18 when it came out and I think it had a lot of good songs on it. Some of the stuff was recorded on a bus, some of it in motel rooms, and it’s partly a live album, too. It just seems to be the one I tend to like the most.

Birmingham Stages: What was the inspiration behind your song ​”It Ain’t Easy Being Me​”?

Knight: I don’t know – I just started writing and I had pretty much the first verse written pretty quickly. I played it for a friend of mine I was writing with and he really liked it. It seemed to be a little quirky and different to me. But, even then, I still didn’t really want to even put it on the album.

Birmingham Stages: What do you think about Blake Shelton covering ​”It Ain’t Easy Being Me​”?

Knight: I’m glad to have anybody recording my songs. John Anderson – he also did a good cover of that song. That was part of the reason why I went to Nashville, to get people to record my songs. I met Blake a long time ago. I was writing with a friend of mine, but that was when he was working on getting a record deal.

Birmingham Stages: What makes you stand out from other singer/songwriters?

Knight: I don’t know – I just write what I write. I’m not trying to pull somebody’s leg with my music. When I record a song, I believe in the song. People like to hear the stories I tell at my shows, too.

Chris Knight will perform at Saturn on Friday, May 31. Kyle Kimbrell will open the 9 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $20 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.

Coffee Talk with Kaydee Mulvehill and Zach Austin

By Brent Thompson

Mulvehill & Austin photographed at Filter Coffee Parlor, May 2019

Phone interviews are the norm for a music journalist, so when you get the rare opportunity to interview artists in person, you jump at it. Recently, I met with Kaydee Mulvehill and Zach Austin at Southside’s Filter Coffee Parlor. On Thursday, May 16, the two Birmingham-based singer/songwriters will perform at The Nick in a triple-bill show that includes Texan Matthew McNeal. During our time together, Mulvehill and Austin shared their thoughts on the local music scene and songwriting while leaving me with a memorable John Prine quote.

Birmingham Stages: Kaydee and Zach, thanks for your time. From a fan’s standpoint, Birmingham’s music scene seems more vibrant and active than ever. As artists, how would you describe the city’s scene?

Zach Austin: I think our local scene is strong and solid as far as everyone working together. Everyone pretty much plays with everyone and helps everyone. It’s like a huge family.

Kaydee Mulvehill: I had a band in 2006 that played until 2009. Back then, we would play The Nick. It was a great place to play, but was geared to full-band shows. Now, on the weeknights, it’s almost like a listening room. You would never know that unless you were there. I think the scene and talent are awesome, but I wish that there were more places where you could come and listen. In the past, some of the bigger venues would get on board in supporting the local artists and having them open up. I wish places would take notice of that and give local talent more opportunities.

Birmingham Stages: As artists forging careers in the era of home recording, iTunes, Youtube and social media, how do you feel about the current climate? Are the modern outlets beneficial or do they just promote clutter?

Mulvehill: I think it goes back to having an old-school work ethic. So much of that is true – you can promote yourself on social media, but the way people remember you is if you can walk up to them and have a conversation and make relationships. You stay after the show and talk to people and make an effort to engage in conversation – that’s what makes people tell their friends about you. You won’t make the same impact as building relationships with people if you’re just throwing it out there.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing processes?

Austin: My phone is full of random pieces of songs that I have ideas for, but sometimes I can just write a song in one sitting.

Mulvehill: I’m kind of the same way. One of the reasons my songwriting has gotten better is I have a good community of people to send songs to. There was a song I wanted to throw away and I sent it to people who said, “This is the best song you’ve ever written.” I was surprised. When you can send it to a group and get that feedback, that will take your songwriting to the next level. You get so down in it that you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Austin: You need to get into somebody else’s head and find out what they hear from it.

Mulvehill: Songs are so personal that to you they make sense because you know what you wrote them about, but for a listener – not knowing what the story is behind it – you want to make sure that your message is clear.

Birmingham Stages: You mentioned that the city’s music community is a close-knit one. Does co-writing exist among local artists?

Austin: It’s hard because I’m a control freak with my songs.

Mulvehill: It can make you vulnerable, especially if it’s something you’ve written that’s personal and someone says, “That’s stupid.” You have to be able to go into it without an ego.

Austin: John Prine once said about co-writing, “When I wrote that, I was thinking about my wife and I was really hoping that he wasn’t thinking about her, too” [laughs].

Kaydee Mulvehill, Zach Austin & The Lonesome and Matthew McNeal will perform at The Nick on Thursday, May 16. Doors open at 9 p.m. and showtime is 10 p.m. Advance tickets to the 21+ show are $6 and can be purchased at www.thenickrocks.com.

Concert Review: Tool at BJCC 5-7-19

By Adam Johnson

The great Tom Petty once said, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

I was a sophomore in high school when I fell in love with Tool. I remember the day the album Aenima was released. We got to school early that day and began devising a plan for how we would get our hands on the CD the minute Magic Platter opened. The obvious problem with this plan – we were stuck in school. Magic Platter wouldn’t open until 10. So we waited… scheming elaborate plans for how we could cover for each other, who would drive, how we could make it back onto campus. Then one of my buddies had the best idea. We would convince the driver’s ed teacher to let the class drive to Magic Platter that morning. We would give our money to one guy and he would buy every copy of the in the store. So, we bribed the driver’s ed teacher with free fast food of his choice and everything was set into motion. Then, we waited… and waited… and waited.

“The waiting is the hardest part.”  I think that accurately sums up what every Tool fan has been feeling since 2006 when the band released their most recent album, 10,000 Days. It sounds a little strange to say 2006 and most recent in the same sentence. But, that gives you a sense of why Tool’s concert at the BJCC captured the attention of the entire world. Tool has a way of creating an experience with their music. You can’t listen to Tool and expect to understand. You have to experience Tool and hope to understand. I have been waiting since 1996 to see these guys live. That is a long time to wait. But just like you have to be patient when listening to their albums (you really shouldn’t listen to only one song at a time), fans have been patiently waiting for the highly anticipated- borderline mythical- new album to be released.

This is finally happening. Fans received emails prior to the show warning us that there is a zero tolerance policy against any video/photography during the show. This was echoed inside the venue and coupled with the announcement, “You will be asked to leave.” You may be thinking to yourself, “Who is going to listen that? And besides, there’s no way they can police that.” I can’t blame you for thinking that. However, you try waiting 8,276 days to see a concert. Then tell me you are willing to risk not seeing it because you wanted to take a selfie. I am sure everyone there was tempted to sneak a picture at one point or another. Nonetheless, the fans who filled the arena complied. Then, near the end of the show, and true to form, Tool’s frontman Maynard James Keenan presented us with a surprise twist. He gave us the greenlight and announced we could take out our phones and begin recording. He told us to take to social media and share with the world what we were about to witness. This was not the real surprise as Maynard had another trick up his sleeve. Just then, the elaborate video display began showing a graphic that read “August 30th.” It was at this moment that Birmingham’s Tool concert became more than just another tour date. It was then that the world finally got an answer to the question we’ve been asking for an eternity. “When are we going to get the new album?!” August 30th.

Tool opened the show with my personal favorite “Aenema” (title track from the album that started it all for me). The music was tight, exploratory and very loud. We were treated with two new songs – “Descending” and “Invincible.” We were lucky enough to get extended versions of “Schism” and “Stinkfist.” In addition to an incredible setlist matched with high quality audio, the lighting and video elements helped to complete the sensory experience to make for an epic show.

Complete Setlist 5-8-2019

  1. Aenima
  2. The Pot
  3. Parabol >
  4. Parabol
  5. Descending (new song)
  6. Schism (extended)
  7. Invincible (new song)
  8. Jambi
  9. Intolerance
  10. Forty Six & 2

Intermission

  1. CCTrip Drum Solo
  2. Vicarious
  3. Stinkfist (extended)

Tool will be back on stage tonight in Louisville, Kentucky and on May 10 in Hampton, Virginia.

Concert Shots: Zac Brown Band at Tuscaloosa Amphitheater 4-25-19

By Brent Thompson

Like a next-generation Jimmy Buffett, Zac Brown knows how to move a crowd. On April 25, the frontman of his namesake band held a capacity Taudience at Tuscaloosa Amphitheater in the palm of his hand. Over the course of a two-hour set, Brown and his bandmates performed their catalog of hits, “Someone I Used To Know” (the single from his upcoming album release) and covered Kings of Leon, Def Leppard and The Charlie Daniels Band.

Look For The Inspiration: A Conversation with Fantastic Negrito

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: DeAndre Forks

In addition to possessing a raw and honest musical style, Fantastic Negrito is a good sport. Speaking by phone from his Oakland, Calif. home literally hours upon returning from Australia, he sounds understandably tired but engaging and thoughtful nonetheless. Born Xavier Dphrepaulezz, the singer/songwriter stepped away from music for several years before reinventing himself as Fantastic Negrito. And what a reinvention it has been. His past two releases – 2016’s The Last Days of Oakland and 2018’s Please Don’t Be Dead [Cooking Vinyl] – both earned Grammy Awards in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category. On Saturday, April 27, Fantastic Negrito will perform at Zydeco with special guest Magnolia Bayou. The show, sponsored by Birmingham Mountain Radio, begins at 8:30 p.m.

Birmingham Stages: Thanks for your time, especially on such little rest after returning from Australia. Had you toured in Australia before this recent trip?

Fantastic Negrito: I’d played Byron Bay, but this time I was able to do Sydney, Melbourne and the Byron Bay Blues Festival.

Birmingham Stages: How did the material for Please Don’t Be Dead take shape? Were these songs newer compositions, older ones or a mixture of both?

Negrito: Some of all of that. A lot of times I think I work well with bits and pieces. Something like my Chris Cornell tribute – the song that came at the end of the record – that came out of nowhere. “Plastic Hamburgers” had been in my head for years.

Birmingham Stages: Do your songs tend to evolve and take shape even after you take them into the recording studio?

Negrito: Absolutely. It’s kind of a catharsis. I love it when it’s organic and trying to be what it wants to be. I was talking with Quincy Jones about this a couple of weeks ago. He was saying, “The minute you start trying to write that hit song, God walks out of the room.” And I love that.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

Negrito: I’ve got kind of a leaky-faucet brain. It’s ongoing and it’s always happening. You take these pieces and you look for the inspiration. Once you find that, you ride it like a wave. Stay truthful – that’s the most important thing.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about your hometown of Oakland.

Negrito: The Bay Area has been churning out music for so long, going back to Sly Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tower of Power, Santana, The Grateful Dead, Metallica, Green Day and M.C. Hammer. You also have the Black Panthers and Hell’s Angels. There are some edgy people [laughs]. The people I named were not going to go along with the status quo. I’m just a product of this incredible place – its culture, its diversity, openness and hypocrisy.

Birmingham Stages: You stepped away from recording and performing for several years. What inspired your return to music?

Negrito: I felt it through the eyes of a child. I had a son who was young and I experienced it through his eyes, ears and heart and that was a very profound lesson – being taught about music by a young baby. In this part of my life, I wanted to contribute to music rather than get something from music. Early in my career, I was always looking for what music could do for me. Now, at this age, it’s what can I do for it.

Birmingham Stages: How do you feel about modern technology’s impact on the music industry? Some artists applaud the accessibility and others say this is a difficult time to be heard among the crowd.

Negrito: I think the main thing is not to think about it and just create. I think when you are contributing, you don’t have time to even think about that. Technology is great, but there’s nothing like the mind and spirit of a human being. This music comes from our ancestors and it’s very spiritual and it’s been passed on. I just started playing in the streets for five years. I picked up a guitar, walked out onto the street and I never looked back. I never worried about who was going to hear it or not hear it. It’s a matter of being focused, creating and letting it take form.

Birmingham Mountain Radio Presents: Fantastic Negrito with Magnolia Bayou at Zydeco on Saturday, April 27. Showtime is 8:30 p.m. (doors open at 7:30 p.m.). Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $15 and can be purchased at www.zydecobirmingham.com.

Concert Shots: Boz Scaggs at Mobile’s Saenger Theatre

By Brent Thompson

On Tuesday, April 9, Boz Scaggs performed at Mobile’s Saenger Theatre to a lively and responsive audience. Currently, the stalwart singer/songwriter/guitarist is touring in support of his latest album, Out Of The Blues [Concord Records]. While he played several tracks from his new record, Scaggs also played the hits that brought him fame including “Lowdown,” “Lido Shuffle,” “Look What You’ve Done To Me” and “What Can I Say.”

Tension & Release: A Conversation with Low Cut Connie’s Adam Weiner

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Kayhl Cooper

It’s good to be Low Cut Connie these days. Counting Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama among its fans, the Philadelphia-based band has gained notoriety thanks to its explosive live shows. Led by vocalist/pianist Adam Weiner – who possesses a playing style and stage presence rivaling Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard – Low Cut Connie plays a timeless brand of rock & roll. In 2018, the band released Dirty Pictures (Part 2) [Contender Records], the follow-up to the first edition released a year earlier. On Friday, March 29, Low Cut Connie will perform at Saturn. Recently, Weiner spoke with us by phone from his Philadelphia home.

Birmingham Stages: Adam, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to your upcoming show at Saturn.

Adam Weiner: This is our first show in Alabama so we’re excited about it.

Birmingham Stages: How did the material for the two Dirty Pictures albums come together?

Weiner: It’s all over the map. We did the two Dirty Pictures albums at the same time. Some of them were new, some were old and some we did in the moment.

Birmingham Stages: How did you determine which specific tracks would be placed on each volume?

Weiner: It was about what felt right. A live show is all about tension and release – you build-up the tension and then give the release. I tried to do that with these records. The first was more tension-building and the second was more cathartic.

Birmingham Stages: Is there a way to to describe the whirlwind your life has been in the last couple of years?

Weiner: I’ve been doing this a long time – it’s definitely started to pick up in the last couple of years. I just keep my head down and do my work. I’ve been doing 100-plus shows a year for a long time and I’m very happy with the crowds we get. But I do the same show whether it’s for 10 people or 10,000 people. I just do my work.

Birmingham Stages: Low Cut Connie is lauded for its live shows. In your opinion, what do you and your bandmates do to separate yourselves from the pack in the live setting?

Weiner: I guess we have a really beautiful connection with our fans – it’s really a two-way street. I like to figure out what those people need and I want them to feel better than they felt when they walked into the room. The show is not about me – it’s about the crowd. The show is not about popularity or ego or what’s cool. It’s about how we make people feel. I try to be extremely focused on that – making people feel good. That’s a little bit out of fashion these days, the lack of irony. But I’m committed to that and I guess people have taken notice of it.

Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process work? Is it challenging to find time to write given your touring and promotion demands?

Weiner: You know what, Brent? It’s a 365-day a year job. If I’m not performing, I’m recording, making videos, writing articles or doing a radio show. That is my work and I do it every day and I love what I do. I don’t think too much about plans and when I can write. I just go with the flow.

Birmingham Stages: How do songs stay fresh to you after you’ve performed them hundreds of times?

Weiner: If I wrote a good one, it’s something I can believe in and sing every day. Some of the songs don’t pass that test. There are songs that I do onstage hundreds of times and I still feel connected to them. If it feels fresh to the crowd, then it feels fresh to me.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about the music scene in your hometown of Philadelphia.

Weiner: It’s pretty vibrant. I grew up here and it was not like it is now. A lot of people skipped town as quick as they could and now people move here and set up shop here. The city has been very supportive of us.

Low Cut Connie will perform at Saturn on Friday, March 29. Shaheed and DJ Supreme will open the 9 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $13 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.

Attuned To Things I Hear: A Conversation with Rosanne Cash

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

It would be fair to deem Rosanne Cash a country artist, but that description would only tell part of her story. In a career spanning more than 40 years, the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian, has delved into folk, rock and pop while garnering four Grammy Awards. In addition to her music career, Cash has written three books and seen her articles published by The New York Times, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone and The Oxford American. In November, she released She Remembers Everything (Blue Note Records), a 10-track collection produced by her husband and musical partner, John Leventhal, and Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket). The album features guest appearances by Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Costello, Sam Phillips and The Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy. On Sunday, April 7, Cash will perform in the Jemison Concert Hall at the Alys Stephens Center. Recently, she spoke with us by phone from her New York City home.

Birmingham Stages: Rosanne, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to your Birmingham show on April 7. How does your schedule look until then?

Rosanne Cash: I’ve got two things – one in Nashville and one in Washington. They’re both kind of special things. In Nashville, the show is for the launch of Ken Burns’ [documentary series] Country Music and a lot of people are doing that show. The documentary is amazing. In Washington, the event is at the Smithsonian to launch an exhibit that commemorates the 100th anniversary of women getting to vote. That’s super exciting, too. I go back to my regular shows on the fifth [of April] and work my way to you.

Birmingham Stages: We are enjoying She Remembers Everything. How did the album’s material take shape?

Cash: Two of [the songs] had been around for about a decade – “8 Gods Of Harlem” and “Rabbit Hole.” The rest of them, for the most part, were written recently. John and I wrote “The Undiscovered Country” and “Everyone But Me” while we were at the end of the record – almost everything had been recorded. Those two are really new. I wrote “She Remembers Everything” with Sam Phillips a couple of years ago.

Birmingham Stages: Some stellar guests appear on the album – Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Costello, Sam Phillips and Colin Meloy. How do those collaborations come about? Do they begin with the person or the song in mind first?

Cash: All in different ways. I had written with Sam and knew I’d love to have her sing on the chorus – it just made sense. With Colin, I’m a huge Decemberists fan. Tucker Martine, who produced the tracks “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For” and “Rabbit Hole,” had also produced The Decemberists so I shyly said to Tucker, “Do you think Colin would sing on the record?” He said, “Well, I can only ask him.” And he said, “Yes” – that was a thrill. With Elvis and Kris, I’ve been friends with both of them for decades and I just kept thinking about writing and recording with them. On paper, that made no sense whatsoever but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I had written the first verse to “8 Gods Of Harlem” and I asked them if each of them if they would write a verse. They wrote their verses and we recorded that track in the same day – I’ve never experienced that before.

Birmingham Stages: With the large catalog of material you’ve amassed, how do you construct your set lists these days?

Cash: I don’t do that Willie [Nelson] thing of having all your songs listed on the floor and just picking one [laughs]. I’m a little too controlling for that. I’ve got to say it’s been more challenging because I’ve got a 40-year catalog. There are certain songs the audience wants to hear. They want to hear “Seven Year Ache” and they want to hear “Blue Moon With Heartache,” so I do those and a few from [2009 album] The List because there are people that are big fans of that record. I want to do new songs because it’s fresh, so I balance it out a bit.

Birmingham Stages: Using the two songs you mentioned as examples, how do they stay fresh and relevant to you after you’ve performed them countless times?

Cash: Do you know what keeps it fresh? The audience gets excited when they hear it and that gives me energy and I’m grateful that they still care about a song that’s been around that long. Every audience is new and they bring their own personality and temperament and energy to it, so I just borrow from that. Songs change over time depending what mood I’m in. I was 22 when I wrote “Blue Moon With Heartache,” so now singing it is like singing a song my daughter wrote.

Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process typically work? Are you able to write on the road?

Cash: I think I’m always writing. I’m attuned to things I hear – poetry, something I read or a piece of music starts the ball rolling. I don’t write that much on the road because my energy is pretty taken up, but I think some of my best things have been written on the road. Right now, John and I have been writing a musical – I’m writing the lyrics and he’s composing the music and we’re almost finished. So, those songs have been taking up some mental space lately.

Birmingham Stages: Some artists say this is a great era because music can be easily accessed via iTunes, Youtube and other outlets. Other artists say, for that same reason, it’s difficult to separate yourself from the crowd. How do you reconcile the pros and cons of the current musical climate?

Cash: I’m not an old fuddy-duddy who thinks, “Oh, it was so much better in the old days.” I like progress and what young people are doing. I do think it’s great that more people can get their music out there and they don’t have to filter it through a major label. At the same time, it’s really hard for musicians to get paid right now because people assume that music is in the air and that everybody should have it. In some ways that’s true, but it’s creative work that costs time and money. Musicians need to pay the rent and pay their bills like anybody else. If you buy music, it supports the musicians and they can continue to make music.

Rosanne Cash will perform at the Alys Stephens Center’s Jemison Concert Hall on Sunday, April 7. Tickets to the 7 p.m. show can be purchased at www.alysstephens.org.