By Jan Mercker
It started with a hundred-year-old melody by a namesake ancestor and grew into an album and a memoir.
Loudoun-based singer/songwriter Andrew McKnight’s new album “Treasures in My Chest” delves deep into the resonance of family history and the power of music. McKnight celebrates the record’s release, along with a companion book, at a March 6 concert at Franklin Park Arts Center.
For McKnight, a passion for genealogy has led to the discovery of fascinating stories and a new appreciation for the unifying thread of music across generations.
“Every one of us has these stories even if we don’t know them. We all have this treasure chest of stuff. The good, the bad, the saints the sinners, the rogues, the renegades, the whole bunch of them,” McKnight said. “They’re all in there, and we’re here because of every one of them. Take any one of them out and poof, you’re not here.”
McKnight, who’s been interested in family history since childhood, plunged headlong into research in 2012 thanks to the advent of home DNA testing. During a visit to his parents’ home in Connecticut a few years ago, McKnight discovered the sheet music to “Margaret,” a song published by his Scottish great-grandfather, also named Andrew McKnight, in 1906. Hearing his sister Aly play the song on the piano for the first time set the wheels for “Treasures in My Chest” in motion.
“I was moved to tears. What of you lasts so long after you’ve left?” McKnight said. “Music, whether it’s recorded or on paper can come to life—right here, right now, right in this room.”
His great-grandfather’s piece is intertwined with the album’s title song, “Treasures in My Chest,” creating a bridge across the decades.
“It’s kind of like we did a co-write across 115 years of time and distance,” McKnight said.
For McKnight, the sense of interconnectedness runs through the album, moving back and forth from looking at his own family tree to reflecting on his own place in posterity. The track “Web of Mystery” tackles the idea of connecting the dots.
“The whole looking forward/looking back and realizing that someday we will be the ancestors people wonder about is powerful stuff,” McKnight said. “You hope that someday you’re remembered.”
McKnight, who grew up in Connecticut but has lived in Loudoun for decades, uncovered so many stories and so much insight in the process, he decided to publish a book, part memoir, and part how-to genealogy guide, with the same title.
Some of McKnight’s most fascinating research involves the story of his direct ancestor Aretas Culver, a Union soldier in the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, whose path brought him close to McKnight’s Western Loudoun home. McKnight discovered a letter Culver had written in 1862 about the Battle of Antietam and returned to the Maryland battlefield to walk in his ancestor’s footsteps, a moving and meaningful experience that inspired the track “Aretas Culver.”
But “Treasures in My Chest” goes way beyond ancient history. McKnight’s “Sons & Fathers” is a moving piece about the adult child/aging parent relationship and features his 82-year-old father Warren, whom McKnight describes as one of his biggest musical influences, on keyboards.
McKnight’s 12-year-old daughter Madeleine plays fiddle on several tracks on the album and will appear on stage with McKnight and his band at the Franklin Park show. For McKnight, watching his tween grow out of childhood has also brought reflection and inspiration.
“In our lives as we age, there’s the idea that we can’t go home again, but we also can’t go back to our childhood,” he said. “The whole thing about ancestry is it gives us something of ourselves to hold onto in a different kind of way when everything else is changing right before our eyes.”
McKnight pays homage to the here and now with the track “My Little Town,” a celebration of his current hometown, the western Loudoun village of Lincoln, and his family’s ongoing chapter in Loudoun. While McKnight’s family roots are in New England, the sense of place that surrounds him in the historic village has seeped into his work.
“I couldn’t have written this book anywhere else. It came out the way it did because of Lincoln…It’s like the present and the past are in this big gumbo called Lincoln. We’re fighting to hold onto our stories while so much of our stories are getting plowed under and paved over and built on,” he said. “Lincoln is a lens that I’ve looked at so many aspects of it through.”
Andrew McKnight’s “Treasures in My Chest” album and book release concert is Friday, March 6 from 7:30 to 10 p.m. at Franklin Park Arts Center. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. For tickets, go to franklinparkartscenter.org. For more information and to download the album, go to andrewmcknight.net.