Ben Knight and the Welldiggers play American music. Kentucky Country music. A noble homage to generations of toil and progress. The songs on the Cincinnati band’s debut release, Divining Rod, are a frighteningly intimate introduction to Ben Knight, the storyteller. He and the Welldiggers earnestly compose new and original tunes that catch your attention with equal parts nostalgia and intrigue.
Knight’s guitar is a divining rod. Its power comes from within him, but he credits its success to some inexplicable force that, in a perfect world, would be available to all of us in easy abundance. Thankfully, upon realizing its power could be wielded, he and the Welldiggers decided to share the once buried boon and let us drink from its bountiful depths. Music is an extension of life, right? Isn’t water equivalent to life? In that case, the Welldiggers wouldn’t just be breaking soil for a cool drink; they’re also digging deep toward American music’s roots.
“My music is American music, I don’t know how else to put it,” Knight says. “I like Jazz and Blues as much as I like Country music. I like Post Punk as much as I like Disco tunes. I feel like it would be limiting to decide I was going to play a particular genre of music the rest of eternity. I write songs without thinking what genre it’s going to be.”
Conversationally, Knight’s Kentucky accent is thicker than molasses in January. When he sings, listeners are taken to Webster County, where Knight grew up and where crime and heartbreak are always fighting for attention. The song “Iceman’s Lament” chronicles the anguish of a killer with a conscience, as he recognizes “you can’t fight them ghosts with your guns.” “Robbers” is an endearingly beautiful song, but when you listen to the story as it unfolds in Knight’s lyrics you realize it is a conspiring tirade from one robber to his protégé before they stick up a liquor store.
“The characters in ‘Robbers’ are Kentucky characters,” Knight says.
“I used to have a real good friend when I was younger. From 16 to 18 I got in with the wrong crowd, ripping and running. Just getting into trouble in general. There was a feeling of camaraderie that I remember from then … camaraderie with a sense of dread.”
That dread is balanced with sentimental songs (such as “Down South”) that nourish the hopeful spirit, reminding the listener that good men cannot be kept down, regardless of history and circumstances.
As a songwriter, Knight plays off of his bandmates with a natural and unpretentious swagger. Singing and strumming his acoustic guitar, Knight’s stories are matched perfectly by the drive of the Welldiggers — Elia Burkhart on upright bass, Jeremy Smart on electric guitar and newest member Brock O’Cull on drums and percussion. Together they offer the perfect secret blend of herbs and spices to Knight’s entree.
While Divining Rod was recorded before O’Cull joined, the album is still a perfect introduction to the group’s sound and context. The live show, however, has only benefited from the addition of a predominant rhythmic element, a simple backbeat that doesn’t interfere with the lyrical impact.
“To me, it’s all about the live show. I think that’s what drew me to music in the first place — the electricity in the room at a really good live show,” Knight says. “While a live show is a place to showcase musicianship and performing, I think an album is the place to showcase songcraft — being able to appreciate the lyrical content, how the words are arranged, the cadence. The biggest thing for me, after it’s done, after I’ve written it, is whether or not I give a shit about the people I’m talking about in the song — whether they’re characters or whether they’re myself.”
The characters in his songs feel authentic, forcing you to build a relationship with them in a few short verses. Knight is an outlaw intellectual who commands a firm grip on the elements of good storytelling. He and the Welldiggers are an inventive and entertaining act that leaves an impression deeper than any wells.
“I got swept up by songwriting way before I got swept up by music,” Knight says. “I was sitting around in my room when I was a kid. I was listening to the words of Steve Earle’s ‘Over Yonder’ and when he got to the line — the line that wraps it all up — I remember feeling chills run through me, from head to toe. I can’t imagine how good it feels to be the guy that makes people feel like that.”