Photo by Chris Cook"I have always been angry; I've got that look in my eye."

Matthew Knights does have that look in his eye.

Not long ago, he recalled his rage over watching a band cut up to a Hank, Sr. song. "I about went up to (offender's name withheld) and said, 'You do that to a Hank Williams song, and somebody's gonna kick your ass. And I might be just the person to do it.' Because punk rock still lives in my soul." Knights gave absolutely no hint that he might have been kidding around.

Music isn't a plaything for Knights.

Since the early 1980s, when he was an untamed, recent high school dropout in Spartanburg, SC, music has defined who Knights is. There was a time when that meant sleeping on the pool table at Dawggone, the local bar where Knights played countless gigs and worked the grill. Other times (and he'll admit this) music took Knights to the heights of excess and self-aggrandizement. Often, music has revealed Knights' vulnerability.

Always, Knights' extraordinary gift as a rock songwriter has been impossible to ignore.

In his book Hub City Music Makers, Nashville music critic Peter Cooper described Knights as "the man who may be Spartanburg's greatest rock songwriter." If that sounds less-than-convincing consider this: The Marshall Tucker Band, with hits "Fire on the Mountain," "Can't You See," and "Heard it in a Love Song," called Spartanburg home. So did Joe Bennett, whose "Black Slacks" landed him on the Ed Sullivan Show, and Southern belle Photo by Chris Cook turned 70s country-rock trailblazer Marshall Chapman.

Just as he understands why a punk rock spirit sticks up for the integrity of a Hank song, Knights also understands that great songwriting and loud, hard-edged rock and roll can co-exist. This is seemingly a lost art, really. More and more, hard rock bands rely on studio bombast; strip them to their basic elements, and they're songs would wilt. Meanwhile, contemporary singer-songwriter fare often sounds timid or saccharine.

Knights is an adherent to the American songwriting tradition of Hank Williams, of Dylan, of the Blues. But he also knows the value of a Marshall amp cranked wide open. In some ways, Knights's sound is a throwback, drawing equally from Bruce Springsteen's best rock hits and Paul Westerberg's lyrical punk genius. But it isn't just the stylistic intentions of Knights' music; it's the substance. There are countless bands with a good song or two. Knights has written many good songs and more than a few great ones.

"Fool to Turn Back Now," "Hand to Mouth," "You Lose Again," "The Underdogs": These are songs that stand the test of Photo by Chris Cook greatness in any era. The question that has vexed Knights' fans for years is why these and other tunes were never committed to a proper recording. Through the late 1980s, there was talk of record deals, and Knights' talent was on display at a number of showcase performances. What went wrong isn't exactly clear, though a combination of issues - management disagreements, Knights' temperament, old-fashioned bad luck - seem to have been culprits.

But now Knights - older, more mature, just as inspired - has taken the matter into his own hands. Matthew Knights, recorded over the course of several weeks in late 2003, captures Knights at his rockin' best: riding an emotional and sonic edge through a set of succinct, intelligent pop songs. Joining Knights on the independently released album are longtime bass sideman Don McGraw and drummer Kevin Heuer (Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love). Spartanburg's Aaron Whisnant produced.

photos by Chris Cook

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