WAYNESBORO - Andrew McKnight can often be found with a guitar in his hand, but it wasn’t always that way. The Virginia native graduated from college with a degree in chemistry and environmental engineering, but soon discovered that wasn’t his path. McKnight quit his engineering job in 1996 to pursue music and has not looked back. This Friday, Andrew McKnight and his band Beyond Borders return to the Valley to play at the Wayne.
“Sooner or later you have to accept you can’t not do something,” McKnight said. “This is what I can’t not do.”
Music followed McKnight his entire life. He grew up in a musical household and his father played in bands. Through college, his guitar and music paid his bills.
McKnight is a singer, writer, guitarist and storyteller who often tours solo. However, he also tours with the quartet Beyond Borders. The band consists of Les Thompson who is a former member and founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Stephanie Thompson and Lisa Taylor.
“I’ve known all of them for 20 years,” McKnight said. “Beyond Borders defines our approach to styles. We take a lot of different things and mix them up. It’s not easy to pigeonhole us with folk, bluegrass or old time. There are a lot of influences. It’s a big gumbo of styles: mountain gumbo!”
Some of McKnight’s songs have an Appalachian root. He’s an advocate to preserve American landscapes, heritage and has a passion for community causes. McKnight hinted people who attend his show at the Wayne will also hear some new songs.
“We’re working on a studio recording of new, collaborative material,” he said. “We have two or three new tunes from that effort that are going to be in the show Friday. That’s exciting for us because I think of doing new things as bicycling on a tight rope: a real risk, crash and burn, but also get your adrenaline up and it’s nice to do that.”
The majority of the songs performed by the group are written by them as well. The exception is a few traditional tunes they play.
“Some of the things we’ve been working on together, sing along, fine harmony singing, a lot of instruments too… it’s about like the weather: if you don’t like what we’re doing in this moment, hold on a few moments because the next thing is going to be totally different,” McKnight explained.
At the show on Friday, people can expect acoustic and electric guitar sounds with banjo, upright bass, drums and percussion. McKnight hinted at what he thought people could look forward to.
“I would certainly hope people might take a spin by our YouTube channel and have a look and listen in advance, [but there will be] great harmony singing and the diverse interest of all the members in term of style. You hear rocking treatment of traditional instrument. Les was one of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; we do a little tribute to that. We do a song they recorded but didn’t put on a final record,” McKnight said.
This is not the first time McKnight played at Waynesboro. He recalled playing not too long ago in a smaller room (WTA's Gateway), just a few blocks away from the theatre. He looked forward to his return.
“I love the Valley. I’ve certainly been to Waynesboro many times, but I have not seen the theatre renovations or what it looked like when they started,” he said. “It’s a thrill to play a beautiful place like that. I’m eager to see what the community effort has done and making it a jewel of downtown Waynesboro again.”
“We plan on adding our own layer of karma to all the great performances that are going to happen this year,” McKnight added. “We'd love to see plenty of people come on out and enjoy this beautiful theater and help us leave that layer of karma here, that would be wonderful. It’s an honor to get to do it.”
Andrew McKnight & Beyond Borders will perform March 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the Wayne Theatre, 521 W. Main St., Waynesboro. Tickets for the event range from $15 to $20 and can be purchased either online or at the box office. For more information visit waynetheatre.org.
Folk artist McKnight hopes his songs create a movie in your head
KEARNEY — For Andrew McKnight, keeping his set list flexible helps him stay creative and on his toes.
“As an artist, one way to keep yourself enthusiastic and inspired, night in and night out, is to add a little spontaneity in the show and make something from it,” he said from his home in Lincoln, Va., the only city with the name Lincoln south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
As for his style of music, McKnight agrees that the label of “folk” or “Americana” fits.
“I think sometimes people get focused on wanting to know what to call something,” the songwriter said. “I have a lot of interest in a lot of different kinds of music, so my songwriting reflects that. There is some jazzy blues in what I do, some old-time Appalachian. I think people would call it folk music simply because it’s by folks, for folks and about folks.”
Kearney audience members can decide for themselves when McKnight performs in concert at 7 p.m. October 8 at Kearney Public Library. Admission to the show is free.
The singer, writer, guitarist and storyteller usually tours solo, but also frequently performs with founding Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member Les Thompson, fronting their genre-bending quartet, Beyond Borders.
McKnight will perform a solo show primarily on the guitar in Kearney. He also plays the Dobro, native American flute and mandolin.
“My guitars put me through college and grad school,” he said. “I played electric guitar in a band with two buddies from high school. We made money.”
After college, McKnight hung up his guitar and concentrated on his work as an engineer. Slowly he felt the pull of music and eventually recorded his first album.
“I got back to writing songs again in the early 90s,” he said. “I’d go out to open mics and get invites to play here or there. It got kind of crazy. I got unpaid leave to tour.”
By 1996, both his music and his engineering career suffered.
“I knew which one would be more interesting and I knew I could keep my engineering license to fall back on, but now, 20 years later, I think I’m doing OK.”
McKnight believes in telling stories with his songs.
“I think of my work as a musical cinematography,” he said. “If I do my job well, within the first three or four lines into one of my songs, you’ve got a movie playing. It doesn’t have to be the same movie I see, but if you’re seeing something, you’re experiencing it in more than just a musical dimension.”
Living in northern Virginia influences McKnight’s music.
“My little village was founded by Quakers back in the 1700s,” he said. “The Quaker influence runs deep here. There’s a lot of history in this place including the Civil War, but going all the way back to the colonial days. There are a lot of ghosts.”
McKnight’s house butts up against several cemeteries. He says he lives with many friendly ghosts.
“They certainly get into your imagination now and then, and rattle out a good story,” he said.
A century ago, families shared stories and handed down lore from one generation to the next generation. With many families, that history can be easily lost.
“I think there’s this cultural homogenization that’s insidious,” McKnight said. “It’s not realistic to think that living in the suburbs of Atlanta should be the same as the suburbs of Denver or Dallas or Washington D.C. because those places aren’t the same.”
As a songwriter, he finds stories to tell that highlight the differences.
“I’ve always been enamored by the uniqueness of places and how all of these places are colorful squares in this crazy patchwork quilt we call America,” McKnight said. “Telling those stories, and telling them in a way that’s accessible to people, you plant people’s imagination in that story. Suddenly they feel something totally different other than, wow, we’ve all lived the same lives.”
Working in different disciplines helps McKnight tell his stories.
“The writing muscles need to be exercised,” he said. “Whatever way you do it, I think it makes you a better writer whether your focus is being a songwriter or a novelist or a short story writer. By writing in different contexts, you just deepen and broaden what you’re capable of doing.”
Each month, McKnight writes an essay. He likes a project with a deadline.
“With seven CDs of music, I don’t necessarily need a new song to go into the show’s line up for tonight,” he said. “It’s easy to be complacent about writing. Writing an essay is one way to force myself to have a project and be writing for it.”
With roots in Bristol, Andrew McKnight returns to serenade the city
Although Andrew McKnight is not from Bristol, his roots run through the Mum City.
His family is from the city. And seven years ago, he visited the city to perform to honor the memory of his grandmother who was active with the city’s Historical Society and served as head nurse at Bristol Hospital.
Subsequently, he returned several times for additional performances through the years.
And this weekend, the troubadour – who is dubbed a folksinger, a storyteller, and a history buff, performs at Artist Tree Tea House and 156 Art Gallery in the West End. It is a repeat visit for McKnight at the West End shop.
We caught up with McKnight via email to talk about his Bristol roots, his music, and his love for history.
OBSERVER: First of all, why did you want to come back to Bristol to perform at Artist Tree? What did you like about the experience last year?
ANDREW: I love the intimacy of smaller listening rooms. As a young artist, I probably harbored the same dreams as most budding musicians with rock star aspirations of playing successively larger venues. As an older young artist, I greatly appreciate the more personal connections with most everyone in the audience in those intimate settings. It’s a much different shared experience. I had a lovely time at Artist Tree last year, and look forward to this year as well.
O: Although you’re not from here, you have roots here. How do you feel spiritually connected to the community and what kind of sense did you get of Bristol in your short visit?
A: My grandparents lived in Forestville, and my grandmother in particular was involved in all kinds of stuff including the Historical Society and Bristol Hospital. Gram taught me to revere family history, even though as a kid it didn’t click with me. Over these last few years teaching my own daughter about our family’s stories I really get why and how deeply it mattered to my grandmother. I think of her often as I’m working on Ancestry.com and imagining how much she would be amazed by it, but also how much we’d enjoy doing it together.
O: Reading your bio, I saw you decided to leave the corporate life and begin a new chapter as a musician. First of all, what was it about corporate life that you said, “This is not for me.” And, secondly, what was it was about being a traveling musician that you found appealing?
A: It’s simply something I can’t not do. I always played music, put myself through Connecticut College and graduate school playing in bands with two high school chums. The short story is, both things were pulling me in different directions, and I figured I could always go back to engineering. That was 1996. I haven’t done it yet, but I’ll still leave the door open.
O: You’ve traveled all over. Given that kind of perspective, what strikes you most about this nation as you go from community to community? What do you think you take away intellectually and spiritually from each of your stops?
A: That this big beautiful nation never was a melting pot. That’s the mythology. It’s a crazy-ass patchwork quilt of wonderfully different and unique squares, despite the corporate consumption machine that wants us to have the same shopping experiences in the same looking suburbs everywhere we go. California is not Connecticut and Connecticut is not Colorado and none of them are Virginia. And they never were, and should never be. That’s what makes us great, the diversity of our landscapes and the people who inhabit them and their quirky community habits. I love the high plains of Kansas as much as the Gulf Coast or the stony crags of northern New Hampshire. It’s beautiful to me to be able to see it, experience it, and let it inspire my art in lots of ways too.
O: You also have an interest in the American Civil War. First of all, why do you find this period interesting? And talk to me a little about the role of music in telling the history of that event in our nation’s history?
A: Firstly, on the War – I live in the midst of many ghosts here in northern Virginia. One of Gram’s great-grandfathers was Aretas Culver, another Bristol resident who I just learned about recently because he was in the news a lot last year… A book came out in November about his regiment, the CT 16th. Company K was from Bristol… And of course, with the Sesquicentennial of the end of the War going on this week, and my family history, it’s pretty much a slamdunk that I’ll play “The Road to Appomattox” at the Bristol show.
O: Talk to me about your music, which draws from diverse sources? Talk to me about the recipe of your sound, and what did you like about these particular genres that seep into your music?
A: A short attention span. Actually, I grew up hearing a lot of different kinds of music. The ‘70s were really pretty diverse on regular radio compared to nowadays. I steal from a lot of different guitar players, and I listen to music from lots of different parts of the world. I love the blues, old time Appalachian fiddle music, ‘70s funk, harmonies like the Beatles and Crosby, Stills and Nash. There’s so much great music from so many sources really. I love Celtic music, and Cuban, Quebecois, and African too. I guess I think about my songs almost as musical cinematography, with a strong visual component. And I’m always looking for musical ideas and sounds to frame that. It’s kind of odd perhaps, but it keeps that short attention span of mine engaged.
O: Finally, what can audiences expect from your show in Bristol?
A: I hope it’s good, firstly. Memorable and catchy songs, engaging stories with some humor and some breathless anticipation too. Like you’ve been to a really good show. That’s really all that matters to me. And every night wherever I am, that’s the goal and the focus.
Andrew McKnight performs Friday, April 24 at Artist Tree Tea House and 156 Art Gallery, 160 School St. Admission is $20. For more information, go to www.andrewmcknight.net.
Three alumni find their life's work in music
Driving home to Virginia´s Shenandoah Valley from a gig in Asheville, N.C., Andrew McKnight ´89 found himself contemplating the links between his major at Connecticut College and his compulsion to write songs about the Earth.
“I didn't major in chemistry to become a chemist,” McKnight says. “I knew I wanted to be an environmental engineer and saw chemistry as a springboard to that.”
While working at an environmental consulting engineering firm, McKnight began building a following, one listener at a time, for his Appalachian-flavored folk. Affecting listeners with his songs — about love, fatherhood, the future of the planet — proved to be so satisfying that McKnight decided to make a go of a full-time music career in 1996.
Organizations like the Charlotte Folk Society praise his “ability to mix history, traditional themes and environmental concerns in an evocative, rootsy musical blend.”
McKnight is speaking out — or singing out — against mountaintop removal coal mining, in part through “Made by Hand,” written by McKnight and band mate Les Thompson, a founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The song is featured on Still Moving Mountains: The Journey Home, a compilation CD released this year to publicize the devastating environmental effects of mountaintop removal.
McKnight, who released his latest CD, Something Worth Standing For, in 2008, relishes an intimate house concert performing for two dozen attentive listeners as much as a standing-room-only gig before hundreds at the Kennedy Center´s Millennium Stage.
“I am a pretty lucky guy who writes songs about the crazy times we live in,” he says.