“It took me a while to accept people’s reaction to the first Trailer Tapes,” says Chris Knight. “At first I didn’t see the appeal, but that’s probably because I was way too close to it. While everybody seemed to respond to the rawness of those performances, I heard every little thing that I’d wished I’d done differently. But now I’ve grown to like it as something that’s worth something. I guess that means,” he says with a laugh, “it’s gonna take a while for me to warm up to Trailer II.”
Trailer II is far more than just a sequel to The Trailer Tapes. Where the majority of the first album were songs that had never appeared on any subsequent Knight disc, Trailer II features original versions of what would become many of Chris’ most popular tracks. Songs like “It Ain’t Easy Being Me”, “Love And A .45”, “Send A Boat” and “The River’s Own” crackle with the unprocessed honesty of a young singer/songwriter finding â€“ and delivering â€“ his own startling voice. “In a sense, this record is the second part of a classic field recording,” says producer Frank Liddell. “It’s the rest of the story of a place in time where you first hear one of the most truthful artists in music today.”
Like its predecessor, the 12 songs on Trailer II were recorded in the summer of 1996 inside Knight’s sweltering singlewide in a field just outside of Slaughters, Kentucky (population 238, including Chris). Knight, then an unknown singer-songwriter still months away from recording his major label debut album, had begrudgingly agreed to record a batch of solo acoustic tracks on his own terms. For a week, Knight, Liddell and engineer Joe Hayden crowded around two microphones and laid down thirty of Knight’s original songs on ADAT tape. Over the next ten years, the stark and stunning recordings - via a combination of bootlegs, leaks and legend - would become one of the most talked-about sessions of the decade.
The tapes would eventually find their way to renowned producer/engineer Ray Kennedy, a long-time Knight fan best known for his work with Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. Kennedy spent months painstakingly cleaning, but never sweetening the tracks to their raw purity. To the surprise of many - especially Chris - the official 2007 release of The Trailer Tapes would become one of the best-selling and acclaimed albums of Knight’s entire career. Critics hailed it as everything from “as stark and brutally honest as Springsteen’s Nebraska” (The Philadelphia Enquirer) to “the sound of Hank Williams with a gun and a Vicodin ‘script” (The Houston Press). “Chris Knight’s not-to-be-missed Trailer Tapes lets nothing get in the way of a great singer and his songs,” wrote Ben Sisario in The New York Daily News. “This is a record no lover of great American music should miss.” Almost immediately, fans and critics alike began asking about the remaining tapes from the trailer sessions.
“When I first heard Chris at a songwriter’s night at The Bluebird Cafe,” remembers Frank Liddell, “I thought I was hearing John Prine and Steve Earle rolled into one. Here was this coalmine inspector from rural Kentucky who was writing these incredible songs. I started to spend time with him in his hometown, getting to know the people and places where his music was coming from. When I signed him to Decca Records, I knew his life was going to change forever.” Liddel, a former publisher, A&R exec and producer today known for his Grammy-winning work with Lee Ann Womack and Miranda Lambert, forewent the traditional pre-production process to instead focus on something more than mere demos. “I wanted to get all these songs on tape literally where they were written,” he explains, “to record who and what he was before anything influenced him in Nashville. What you hear on Trailer II are the performances that convinced us we’d captured a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”
“I think I was hard on myself when it came to putting together Trailer II,” Chris admits. “I’ve been playing most of these songs every night on the road for the past 12 years. I know I sing them way different now than when I did then. What you’re hearing is a guy who had written those songs at his kitchen table and barely knew how to sing them into a microphone. Still,” he says, “there are moments where I can hear the beginning of what I do now.”
What comes through on Trailer II is more than just an early snapshot of one of the most uncompromising careers in American music. Stripped to only voice and guitar, young Knight performs with a hunger, intensity and emotional complexity that is pure, passionate and powerfully real. And while nine of the album’s twelve tracks are among the most popular of Chris’ catalog - “It Ain’t Easy Being Me”, “Bring The Harvest Home” “Love And A .45”, “Summer Of ‘75” and “The River’s Own” from his 1998 self-titled debut, “Send A Boat”, “Highway Junkie” and “Blame Me” from 2001’s A Pretty Good Guy, and “Old Man” from 2006’s Enough Rope - these early versions reveal a stark emotional core that revisits and renews their impact like never before. Additionally, the early Chris originals “I’ll Be There”, “Speeding Train” and “Till My Leavin’s Through” are quietly shattering in their poetry of the taciturn and tender. Heard here for the first time anywhere, they are - like the rest of the album - nothing less than the sound of a burgeoning artist in a rusty trailer, yearning, learning and discovering the frontiers of his own extraordinary talent.
“I still think about those sessions,” Chris says today. “It was hotter than hell and we had to turn off the noisy air conditioner when we hit the record button. I know (engineer) Joe Hayden was concerned about the birds chirping under the awning and the cows outside the door. I couldn’t sing with headphones on, and I kept banging the guitar into the microphone. I hadn’t performed live much and rarely sang or played a song the same way twice. To this day, I’m trying to figure out why people find any of this interesting.” But for one of the most restless and hard-nosed artists in American music, Trailer II is an essential look back at a career that keeps moving forward. Most of all, its allowed Chris to finally embrace the time, place and songs that have returned to strike a new nerve among the Knight faithful. “For the longest time I thought ‘I can play these songs so much better now.’ Eventually I realized that’s not the point. I lived in that trailer for eleven years. It’s where I wrote my first songs. I won’t ever go back there, but I like knowing that something has lived on. I guess I had let go and let these tapes sound good to me again. Pretty soon,” he says with a hard-won final smile, “they may just sound real good.”
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