By MIKE CHAIKEN
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.
By MIKE CHAIKEN