This is the first time I’ve sung in 20 years,” said Robert Knight, speaking on a recent Sunday afternoon at Hermitage Landing. “I come out here and I practiced with the band at 11 o’clock today, and that’s it. A little scary at first, but it goes away.”
The occasion was a “Good Times and Great Oldies” concert sponsored by Oldies 96.3. Playing to a crowd of beach music aficionadosthe shag-happy fanatics who can be counted on to sing along to the “OO-EEE” part of “Sea Cruise”the lineup included Clifford Curry, Archie Bell and Al Wilson, among others. The Casinos, reunited for just this special occasion, threw down on a first-rate version of “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” their 1967 pop smash written by John D. Loudermilk (and still my favorite record on the 45 rpm jukebox at Bro’s).
Into the midst of the T-shirt-and-visor partying crowd came Mr. Knight, strolling toward the beach in a blue blazer, gray slacks, and shades. Taking his time as he approached the stage, one hand buried in his pants pocket, he looked the picture of hipster cool. Called to the mic, Knight spoke a few words to the house band, the Sons of the Beach, then broke into a surprisingly polished take on “Everlasting Love,” the song that brought him sudden fame in 1967. He hadn’t sung it live in 20 years.
The crowd, cheering as they recognized the song, was not about to let Knight go when he finished. Acceding to their cries for an encore, he conferred with the band, then turned around and said, “I’d like to dedicate this song to the person that wrote the song, Buzz Cason. We’re gonna do it again.”
As Knight pointed into the audience, Cason, incognito in his own beach outfit, doffed his cap and blew the singer a kiss.
A native of Franklin, Tenn., Knight was born there in 1945. Typically, he started out singing in church at the age of 7. But less typically, his first solo performance was at about the same ageat the funeral of a neighborhood friend. “He stuck a nail in his foot and he died of lockjaw,” Knight explained.
Later, in high school, Knight sang with a band called the Cheers, then with the Fairlanes. Like Cason before him, he also made appearances on deejay Noel Ball’s amateur hour rock ’n’ roll TV show. When a precocious teenage Knight then put together a vocal group called the Paramounts, Ball landed them a deal with Dot Records, the label started in Gallatin by Randy Wood of Randy’s Record Mart fame. With Knight taking the soaring lead vocal, the Paramounts put out a pair of Dot singles in 1961, both of them steeped in the vocally rich sound of East Coast doo-wop more than deep Southern soul. Dissatisfied with the group situation, however, Knight broke away from the Paramounts and recorded “Free Me” as a Dot solo act. With Ball producing, the record had much the same pop-soul feel as Ball’s subsequent work with Arthur Alexander. In fact, Knight and Alexander grew to be close friends, and Knight says he sang second tenor on a number of Alexander’s legendary Dot sides.
Still, it wasn’t until Mac Gayden tracked him down in 1967 that Knight’s own work had anything more than a regional impact. Like Buzz Cason, Gayden was among the maverick Nashville musicians working the pop and R&B angles in town. By no means coincidentally, he was also the cowriter with Cason on “Everlasting Love.”
“When I was with the Fairlanes band,” Knight recalls, “all of us used to play what you called Greek Week at Vanderbilt, the fraternities, and Mac approached me. He told me that he had a song that he thought I could do. And that song was ‘Everlasting Love.’ ”
Produced by Cason, Knight’s original version of “Everlasting Love,” which has since been covered by Carl Carlton and Gloria Estefan, among others, hit the Top 20 on both the pop and R&B charts. With almost no warning, Knight was thrown into the hurly-burly of national acclaim. “I had to do a lot of concerts, learn choreography and stuff like that,” he said. “ ’Cause you know ‘Everlasting Love’ hit pop before it went R&B.”
“Concerts” is one thing, but Knight was booked for a 1968 European tour with a red-hot Aretha Franklin; Cason accompanied him across the big pond. As if sensing the turn the conversation had taken, Cason meandered over from the crowd at Hermitage Landing and joined in the reminiscing. “I remember one night Mick Jagger’s standing right beside me,” he said.
“Robert presented Cliff Richard with an NME poll award too,” Cason added. “The NME, New Musical Express. I got a picture, I think, of him with Cliff Richard. And that was the nightthat same day the Stones introduced ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash.’ The first appearance with Mick Taylor.”
“What happened to those pictures me and Stevie Wonder took together in Europe?” Knight wondered. “You don’t remember meeting Stevie?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Cason nodded. “Where were we?”
Not quite scratching their heads, Knight and Cason paused a moment, then both cracked up, laughing over the absurdity of having no frame of reference for a meeting that would, for many mortals, be the thrill of a lifetime.
“Someplace,” Knight finally said. “Man, we covered a lot of We went everywhere.”
From there the conversation disintegrated rapidly. A couple of shy young girls asked for autographs. Clifford Curry came over to say hello. Somebody wanted Knight to greet an old acquaintance over yonder.
Clearly Knight, whose last hit was 1974’s “Love on a Mountaintop”it sold 400,000 copies in England, according to Casonhad some catching up to do. He also had no better setting than the oldies concert at Hermitage Landing, where the crowd had no Music Row agenda, only their Clifford Curry T-shirts and their joy in a wicked pop hook.
Asked to join the traveling revue on which he had just guested, and also looking to head back into the studio with Cason, Knight had only the details to work out. “I still can’t dance,” he said with a laugh.
In the Tradition
D>orothy Allison isn’t known as a country music historian, but several passages from her autobiographical novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, contain some of the finest writing about the transformative power of music anywhere. The following lines are typically rich, providing a glimpse of both a recurring childhood epiphany and her mother’s musical canon:
“Every afternoon after school I was supposed to go stay with Reese at Aunt Alma’s, but instead I started going over to the West Greenville Cafe on the Eustis Highway. The jukebox had as many old songs as newLoretta Lynn, Teresa Brewer, Patsy Cline, and Mama’s favorite, Kitty Wells. Mama always said Kitty had a smoky voice, not as pure as Patsy’s, but familiar. The truckers loved that music as much as I did. I’d sit out under the cafe windows and hum along with those twangy girl voices, imagining myself crooning those raw and desperate notes.”
The words “raw,” “desperate” and “familiar” describe Freakwater’s hillbilly folk music as well as any; “Gravity,” the opening track from Old Paint (Thrill Jockey), the band’s fourth album, is but one example. The song begins starkly with a haltingly strummed acoustic guitarfitting accompaniment for Catherine Irwin’s expressive, world-weary drawl when she sings: “I wasn’t drinking to forget, I was drinking to remember/How I once might have looked through the eyes of a stranger/When all hope should be gone still a dream somehow lingers/Like the ghost of a snowstorm and frostbitten fingers.” Fiddle and steel guitar follow, conveying the longing and loss of the lyrics as Irwin, steadied by Janet Bean’s plaintive soprano, reckons with the image reflected in the glass: “The face I think is mine is not the face that I see/The worried face in the mirror whose worried eyes are fixed on me/All your beauty will be stolen by a young girl in the night/A thief as quiet as a dark cloud that stole away the night.”
Freakwater singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Catherine Irwin is cut from the same cloth as novelist Allison, right down to her working-class roots and poet’s ear for the rhythms of everyday life and speech. Ever attentive to the politics of gender and class, Irwin and Allison are ultimately bound together by their shared moral vision, which, at its bleakest, portrays a world where the best any of us can do is not hurt each other too badly. Freakwater’s Old Paint even touches on many of the same themes as Allison’s gripping “Ugly Man” unmasks domestic violence; “Gone to Stay” places a mother, helpless and empty, at the graveside of her baby; and the following lines from “Waitress Song,” yearning and guilt-ridden, convey one woman’s struggle to live up to her lover’sand society’soppressive expectations: “If I didn’t come home every day smellin’ like fried eggs/If I didn’t have those veins poppin’ out all over my legs/If I had my hair done up real nice/If I had some clothes that weren’t too tight/Would you still be comin’ home drunk in the middle of the night?”
Irwin’s songs also owe a debt to Loretta Lynn’s proto-feminist mini-dramas, except that Irwin replaces the fiery pluck of Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ ” with the resignation of someone who has forsaken dreams for survival. (“I knew to lay low when he came home drinkin’ ’cause I knew him like the back of his hand.”) Irwin and Freakwater draw even more inspiration from traditional country and bluegrass pioneers like the Original Carter Sisters, Wilma Lee Cooper and Rose Maddox, taking cues as well from haunting Dolly Parton classics like “Down From Dover” and the folk activism of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. However, as “Hero/Heroine” makes plain, Irwin’s ultimate heroand the one from whom she inherits her populist streak at its most defiant (“Maybe money can’t buy happiness, but neither can just bein’ poor”)is Woody Guthrie. In fact, when Irwin sings, “You are my hero, you are my heroine,” you’d swear she was saying “heroin,” if only to underscore the narcotic power that Guthrie exercises over her music and sense of vocation.
Freakwater also bring a markedly indie-rock sensibility to their distinctive string-band music. Old Paint, like its equally stunning predecessor, was recorded at Brad Wood’s Idful Studios, home to former indie and current alternative rock sensations Liz Phair and Smashing Pumpkins; singer, guitarist and coleader Janet Bean drums full-time with Chicago alternarockers Eleventh Dream Day. But Freakwater is not the latest Southern culture on the skids shtick: Irwin and Bean have been signing close harmony together for 13 years. Their postmodern slant on Appalachia’s tragic songs of life is as heartfelt as Bob Dylan emulating Woody Guthrie or BR5-49 paying tribute to Johnny Horton or the Delmore Brothers.
Recorded live in the studio with only steel guitar overdubbed, Old Paint beautifully evokes the spare, earthy music of a bygone era. Much of itincluding “Burying Geraldine,” written by fellow Louisville songwriter Ratsounds like it was recorded on the Tennessee-Virginia border around 1927.
Freakwater are currently touring in support of Old Paint, which was released Oct. 10, and they’ll open for the irrepressible Wilco Saturday at 328 Performance Hall. Irwin, Bean and company have been known to cover Bill Monroe and the Louvin Brothers live; also look for knockoutand, to varying degrees, sexy and subversiveversions of the Conway Twitty, Rick Nelson and Nick Lowe songs they’ve committed to vinyl. Plan on arriving early; the drummerless four-piece doesn’t get out and play very often.
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