By the middle of spring, you'll find her in overalls, tending to rows of flowers. Cheri Knight of Hatfield, Massachusetts, is a farmer—albeit a farmer who recorded one of the year's most critically raved-about albums. Farming, Knight will tell you, is her first love and her main source of income. Music is a sideline from the 60 hours a week her hands are in the dirt.
"By now I'd have all my flowers planted, and I'd be deep into transplanting things in the greenhouse," said Knight, calling early in the morning from an Arizona phone booth. "Usually by April I'm rocking out there."
Crocodile, Sunday, May 3
Knight is doing just that—rocking—not in a greenhouse, but on a seven-week American tour. Bass guitar in hand, she's rocking every night, promoting her new album, The Northeast Kingdom, produced by Steve Earle and released on his label, E-Squared. The pioneering country rocker first heard Knight's music by accident. An indie radio producer, trying to persuade Earle to sign Whiskeytown to his label, slipped Earle a tape with a B-side that included Knight's song "Light in the Road." "One day he called me from Ireland and said, 'Hi, I'm Steve. You want a record deal?'" Knight recalled.
Knight's lyrics are often charged with lessons in life and relationships gained from her hours in the field. On "Black-eyed Susie" (named for a flower she regularly delivers to Boston farmer's markets) she sings, "I've done all a girl can do to get you in the ground again/I hold you in my muddy hands... /And in the end I'll have to plow you under."
The singer's farming experience includes seven years spent in Washington, working summers on a Walla Walla farm to put herself through Olympia's Evergreen College. The farm was owned by a free-spirited woman and her husband. Knight feels such a bond with the woman, Dar Glasgow, that she named the lead track on the new record for her. "She raised dairy goats and she became my mentor," said Knight. "I've always wanted to write a song about goats, so I decided to name it after her. When the record was done, I sent her the song. She's in her fifties now, still living in Walla Walla and doing her goat thing."
Balancing life on the farm with life as a musician has been part of Knight's regimen since her days with the Blood Oranges, a Boston band that continues to be named as an influence by the current crop of alternative-country bands. "I've been doing this a lot longer than the alt-country scene has been around," said Knight. "I don't really feel a part of that, but I feel like it's a part of what I and the people before me have been doing. People like Emmylou Harris and the Byrds, Creedence—the early, lefty rock 'n' rollers who decided they wanted to play country music."
Former Blood Oranges bandmates guitarist Mark Spencer and mandolin player Jimmy Ryan (who joins her on the road) appear on Kingdom. Loose and spontaneous, the record mixes quiet country ballads with toe-tapping twangers and slide-guitar rockers. Kingdom has garnered armloads of press and sold well for an independent release, yet Knight remains relatively unknown; at a recent El Paso, Texas, gig, only 10 people showed up. But Knight knows that if this music thing doesn't work out, the farming thing will.
"I may just get fed up with the road, and go home to my flowers," she said. "I can always record on my four-track at home and give the tapes to friends at Christmas. I love to make records and I love the creative process. But the monotony of being on the road and the business aspect, I couldn't care less about. To be able to live my life on the farm and write music is all I really care about."