Talented drummer John McKnight talks about Dan Toler, George McCorkle, Chris Duarte and Woodstock

"Keep music not only fun, but almost spiritual!"

John "Mighty" McKnight: Heartbeat Of Groove

John "Mighty" McKnight has a gift that he loves to share! After numerous years of being a side man, he has decided to organize his own band and get out there and spread some joy. Using a multitude of talented friends The Rhythm Yard is ever changing. John likes to keep things "fresh" so to speak and push the envelope at times to the limit, thus utilizing all his talented friends. John started drumming at 7 and singing behind the kit at 15. Has been playing professionally now for 31 years, and has recorded on 50 cd's to date. He takes what he does very seriously and when you watch him you'll see and hear for yourself that he pours his heart into every performance.

He's played and recorded with Dangerous Dan Toler (ABB and Great Southern), John Townsend (Sanford Townsend Band, Toler Townsend Band) Jimmy and Jack Hall (Wet Willie), George McCorkle, Marcus James Henderson and Chris Hicks (Marshall Tucker Band), Forrest McDonald, E.G Kight, Delta Moon, Ike Stubblefield, Oliver Wood (King Johnson, Wood Brothers), Fiona Boyes (Australia), Hughie Thomasson (The Outlaws, Lynyrd Skynyrd) and many more. John is currently touring with The Chris Duarte Group, Jimmy Dormire & The Infinite Line and The Rhythm Yard.

Interview by Michael Limnios 

Photos by Bob Hakins & Cat Edge Photography

How do you describe John McKnight sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Being a huge fan of progressive rock I spent several years studying bands like Yes, Kansas, Rush, Jethro Tull, Emerson Lake & Palmer and even got into Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin and Some Black Sabbath. My playing style was more on the busy side. But after I started singing and then writing songs, (I play a little guitar) I discovered that at times I was overplaying. I simplified my playing style taking the minimalist approach and suddenly realized I was getting more work. It's all about the groove! I am nothing more than a heartbeat, the foundation for the rest of the song. Thinking of drums now as an instrument and playing for the song instead of myself translates much better in a working, recording situation. Having recorded on 57 CD's so far I'd like to think I have enough experience now to do the right thing for any recording situation. I know when to lay back and when to add a little something special and I always give the songwriter or producer what they want.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The most interesting was probably going on the road right out of high school in a band that the guitar player and I were in charge of. We had an agent out of Pittsburgh booking us in the hotel dance circuit, usually 6 nights a week 3-4 hours a night. This was in 1983 so no mobile phones and no GPS made traveling quite interesting to say the least. Flat tires, blown motors and the unknown gave us a bunch of stories to tell over the years! Learning how to live on the road, eating out of a cooler to save money so you can at least put a little in the bank. My best moment so far, I was performing with a band I had recorded with in Atlanta one night at a benefit and after our set I got a drink at the bar and headed back to the dressing room. I walk in and there's Buddy Miles sitting on the couch eating pizza going over a set list with some guys I had played with previously. Out of the blue he calls a tune they all agree they know it and he looks at me and says "you could play drums on this if you want." Well "yeah I want!" I wound up playing most of the set with him, an honor and a joy to be on stage with such a legend. A worst moment in my career is a tough one. I'm sure I've made some mistakes along the way but I wouldn't categorize any one of them as a worst moment.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I got to play an all star jam at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame with Ed King (Lynyrd Skynyrd) Jeff Carlisi (38 Special) Chris Hicks (Marshall Tucker Band) and Mike Causey (Stillwater) some years ago and that was quite an honor! Some of the most memorable gigs are definitely the festivals I've played across the United States. My best experience was performing at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2003 that was just so amazing in so many ways.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

About 11 years ago I was involved with a band that did a live recording. We sold tickets had it catered and threw a party at a well known studio in Atlanta and multi tracked the show. The day of the show we had a sit down lunch and discussed how it was going down. The bass player and I agreed on a flat fee for the gig and points when released on the back end. Some years had past and the bass player called me when I was in Nashville rehearsing with The Renegades and asks if I ever got paid? I tell him no and we discuss his conversation with the band leader who claims that none of that was agreed on. Needless to say any other business agreements are written down and signed by both parties, at least this can stand up in court if need be. Best advice is never take anyone for their word and even if it's a simple agreement, get it written and signed even if it's on a napkin! Cover and protect your backside!!!!

"We need creative energy good and bad to fuel our passion. So a natural change will occur given the circumstances." (John & Chris Duarte/Photo by Bob Hakins)

Are there any memories of Dan Toler and Chris Duarte which you'd like to share with us?

"Dangerous" Dan Toler was one of the sweetest guys I've ever had the pleasure of working with! He was always happy and had a big hug for you; at times I would call him just to tell him a few jokes. I used to love being on the bus hearing all the old stories from the Allman Brothers days. I can't think of any one particular memory with Danny, we always had such a great time together!

Chris is another great guy, always genuine, always professional. He has an inner drive that is so strong and powerful and is totally visible when he is on stage! When I got the gig with Chris he said "all I ask is you play every show like it's your last!" That also comes through with every performance. I'm completely honored to have shared the stage with these two fine gentlemen.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears of the future?

Music today to me is not as organic and real as it was "back in the day." I think technology is a wonderful thing and I also think it has opened a lot of doors for the bedroom musician to record songs with the help of samples and software. Believe me it still takes talent and patience to do that but the days of a band setting up and playing in a studio are not as common. There's something to be said about a group of players getting together and writing and recording an album in the studio without samples, loops or overproduction. I prefer the live recorded product; it has a certain feel and energy to it! That's why I always try to capture the tune in 1 or 2 takes so it has that raw fire and doesn't sound overdone. Now everyone is even using tracks with their live shows! I always go in the studio with the intent of if you can't do it with your band live and do it justice don't over produce it in the studio so you can't reproduce that sound. How many times have you seen a live show and think to yourself "they didn't sound anything like their record?" I'm gradually seeing and hearing groups simplifying things and getting back to real music, so there is hope!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I honestly don't think I would change anything. I may not agree with the direction that music has taken at times but with change comes growth. If we don't expand our horizons and try new things life gets boring and stagnant, and that's one thing that artists do not like! We need creative energy good and bad to fuel our passion. So a natural change will occur given the circumstances. I may feel it has taken a long time to achieve the accomplishments in my life so far but if it had come easy I wouldn't appreciate it as much. I'm happy with my journey and everything the universe has given me.

Which memory from George McCorkle, Ike Stubblefield and Hughie Thomasson makes you smile?

George was one of the kindest, sweetest men I've ever had the opportunity to meet and work with. We performed at a casino out west somewhere and after the show we walk into the dressing room and he says in his southern accent "hey man did you see those two blondes checking me out? That's right they was thinking who's your Daddy!" I said "bullshit they were thinking who'e your Grandaddy!" He got such a kick out of that from that moment on every time he called me he'd say "it's your Grandaddy" and I continued to call him Grandaddy until the day he left us. I loved him dearly! Another time we got on the bus in Nashville and I said "how ya doin Grandaddy?" He said "don't you worry about me Son I'm groovier than a corduroy rubber!" Still puts a smile on my face to this day.

I got to do a few shows with Ike Stubblefield and Grant Green Jr. and my fondest memory of Ike was he looked at me one night and said "I can hear you thinking over there! Stop thinking and just play." I catch myself every know and then and remind myself to play and stop thinking about it.

In 2000 I got to record with Hughie Thomasson, Chris Hicks and Ean Evans in Atlanta. Hughie had just finished the Skynyrd album and was putting a demo together to give to their producers. He wanted to get The Outlaws back together. One particular song we did he wanted a section near the end of the tune to be chaos and then come back in with the groove and rock out til the end. Well I gave him what he wanted and a few years later I bumped into him backstage when I was with The Renegades and he had got The Outlaws back together. He told me he let his drummers listen to the cut and they couldn't figure out what I did, so I guess it was just enough chaos!

"I simplified my playing style taking the minimalist approach and suddenly realized I was getting more work. It's all about the groove! I am nothing more than a heartbeat, the foundation for the rest of the song." (Photo: John with The Rhythm Yard)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Southern Rock music?

Blues and Jazz are the some of the oldest forms of American music. I am not a historian but as long as we have artist who continually search out their roots, these art forms will continually make an appearance in modern music. As the Allman Brothers have brought back classic blues tunes and turned people on to a style of music they probably never would've listened to, new groups reach back into the past to find a new sound. Take bands like Vintage Trouble, The Black Keys and even Bruno Mars, they've all tapped into that blues, soul past that we've been blessed with. It's nice to turn on the radio and hear something that actually has a groove and a heart and lyrics that really make you think. Music has made some crazy turns in the past but as long as we have people who long for our musical past and who are influenced by these old styles of music, maybe can put a new spin on it and keep music not only fun, but almost spiritual!

Let's take a trip in a time machine, so where and why would you wanna to go for a whole day?

I would have to say Woodstock as a performer. I don't like crowds so I wouldn't have been able to handle all that as a spectator, I need to have a little personal space. But, being a performer and being flown in on a helicopter and seeing all those people and feeling all that energy from the crowd and being around all those other amazing people would've been absolutely incredible.

Which incident of Easy Rider (the movie) would you like to be captured and illustrated in a painting with you?

This question made me go back and watch the movie and I must say it angered me at times and depressed me as well. I've been clean and sober for a little over 5 years now so the drug scenes didn't do anything for me. Being a true motorcycle enthusiast and avid rider the riding scenes are my favorite! So a scene riding through the southwest sunset with Dennis and Peter would be cool.

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