With his messy, graying hair, black-rimmed glasses, sailor's tongue and refusal to dress like a medical professional, it's easy to imagine Gary McKnight as a real-life version of TV doctor Gregory House.
"Probably, some people would prefer I wear a white coat and a three-piece," McKnight says over a Corona at the Sandbar in Lawrence. "Well, go someplace else, asshole."
When he sees patients at Tallgrass Surgical Center in Topeka, McKnight wears pretty much the same thing he sports at his band's shows — jeans and a button-down shirt.
"Years ago, I just decided that I can't bullshit anybody," the leader of country-rock band True North says.
The frankness can be somewhat jarring coming from a guy whose heartfelt songs about romance and raising kids can get almost too gooey. But that's just McKnight — emotionally intense.
I first encountered him and his band in 2005, after they sent a copy of their CD Dashboard Believer to the St. Joseph News-Press for me to review. The slick press kit included a photo of six regular-looking guys staring into the camera. I thought some of them — McKnight included — looked a little old for the aspiring-musician thing.
But compared with the bad local cover bands and the teen punks hounding me for coverage at the time, True North seemed professional and talented.
The recordings on the band's independent release were clean and crisp. And more important, the music hit the mark the band was aiming for.
Dashboard Believer is full of honest, catchy, from-the-heart country songs that unpretentious teenagers and grandmas alike can relate to.
A True North show can quickly turn into a sweaty dance party punctuated by promlike moments when McKnight delves into his sensitive stuff — love songs he usually dedicates to his wife, Jan.
The extreme sentimentality of songs such as "For a Woman" may be too much for hipster cynics, but I've always believed that True North could be a country-radio cash cow if McKnight would commit to music full time.
That's unlikely to happen, however. Now 48, McKnight has chased that dream before. "All I've seen is, labels screw shit up," he says.
Sixteen years ago, he and his younger brother had a band called the Dialtones. Based in Nashville, they played up to 250 days a year and eventually gained the interest of major labels. "MCA flew all the way to St. Joseph, Missouri, to see me play," McKnight says.
But the industry people didn't know what to do with the Dialtones, who had Marshall stacks and big attitudes. "We were too rock and roll for country," McKnight says.
Eventually, Nashville caught on to the idea that country music could rock a little. But by the time Garth Brooks was breaking guitars, the Dialtones were done.
McKnight took his wife and kids back to Kansas. He started medical school, and his guitar stayed home. "I just decided that I didn't want anything to do with the music business anymore," he says.
But McKnight never gave up the hobby he started at the age of 12 to help him make sense of the world. "I have notebooks full of songs," he says. Then he chuckles and adds, "Of course, how many of 'em don't suck?"
About four years ago, McKnight and his friend Garrett Rake started playing some of his best songs together in a project that would become True North.
The band practices on Wednesday nights at McKnight's house in tiny Valley Falls, Kansas, and plays weekend gigs. A favorite haunt is the Acoustic Café in St. Joseph, where the band's latest release, Live at the Café, was recorded.
I last saw True North sell out the Jazzhaus in Lawrence for that CD's January release party. I still think the band could sell out much bigger venues.
But McKnight says he's having too much fun on his own. "If I live that long — in 20 years, I want to say we had fun and it was good for what it was," he says.
The next few months see True North playing a smattering of county fairs, weekend festivals and one-offs in the kind of towns where it's easy to picture McKnight's nostalgic songs taking place — small towns such as Rock Port, Missouri, and Highland, Kansas.
On April 26, True North returns to the Jazzhaus in Lawrence. You won't need a compass to find it.