Forty years of dreamers: J. Knight celebrates his long-running open mic

J. Knight’s 40th Open Mic Anniversary Show

Monday, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m., Wildwood BBQ & Saloon, Free

J. Knight has been supporting rising artists in Iowa City for 40 years. — courtesy of the artist

Back when The Mill was still around, one of the cultural touchstones most deeply interwoven with its legacy was the Monday night open mics held by musician J. Knight. Countless area musicians started and nurtured their careers there. With COVID-19 and The Mill’s closing, it may have felt like an era was ending.

It wasn’t. Knight has found a new home base at Wildwood BBQ & Saloon. Every Monday but one since Sept. 20, regular performers and a scattering of newbies have gathered together in this new iteration of this interrupted tradition. And Monday, Nov. 8, Knight has arranged for a fantastic slate of talent to celebrate a phenomenal milestone: 40 years of hosting these career-defining events. On the lineup are Grouper Soup; Birds, Trains, & Friends; Flash In A Pan; Pigs & Clover; Reid, Joel, & Rachel; and special guest Laura Kittrell.

Knight, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, came to Iowa City in 1980, when his wife, Marilyn (now retired from the University of Iowa) was first accepted into the prestigious Writers’ Workshop. They didn’t think at the time that they’d stay long, maybe five years.

“Wasn’t coming back for a job,” he said, “so I figured I’d play music for a while.”

The first place the long-time musician played in Iowa City was The Mill. After a year in town, he went to then-owner Keith Dempster (who retired in 2003 and passed away in 2013) and asked if he could host an open mic night.

“He said, ‘Here’s what we do,'” Knight recalled. “And I said, ‘Well I’d like to do something different.'” The standard procedure for open mics was a one-and-done model, where musicians barely got to experience the stage before they were finished already. Knight told Dempster he wanted “something where people can develop a beginning, middle and end … develop some stage presence, get comfortable with putting together a short set.”

The style stuck. And the Knights stuck around. After his wife accepted a job with the University, Knight said, “We just sort of stayed on.”

He worked for years as a school counselor in the Cedar Rapids Community School District — retired from there, in fact, then was tempted back for another eight years in a more flexible role and retired again. He’s worked for the Iowa Arts Council, coached swim team for a couple of years in Iowa City. But through it all, the open mic nights were the crux of his connection with and to the community.

J. Knight is a connoisseur of all things strings. — courtesy of the artist

Knight first caught the music bug as a pre-teen. His house was always filled with instruments, he said, and frequented by guests who could play them.

“I didn’t participate with them much,” he said. “But I would listen and try it on my own.”

He was the first member of his family to graduate high school, and hadn’t expected to follow an educational path beyond that. But when his high school sweetheart, Marilyn, became the first in her family to graduate a year after him, she made the choice to go to college — and he decided to go as well. They attended what is now Wright State University in Ohio, which had just opened at the time (an interesting coincidence that he would go to a school named for the Wright brothers and then end up working in the CRCSD, where the legacy of the Wrights also holds a lot of sway!).

He went to Miami University for his masters and then pursued his doctorate at Ohio State.

“While I was doing my doctorate, it was the first time I had any time. I’d been busy for years, [and] decided I was going to start playing again to relax a bit.”

It was nonstop from there. After he completed his doctorate, he became an assistant professor back at Miami University, where he formed the band Oxford Box 66. Shortly after, he left the U.S. to work at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. He knew no one, but found community through music. The group Another Country Band came together to play at an event for Americans in the city, but was pinged by a local restaurateur who invited them to play regularly in his establishment. From there, they gained some notoriety in the region.

Although his primary instrument is guitar, Knight can and will play virtually anything with strings (although he says he doesn’t play fiddle any longer, because there are “too many good fiddle players” in this area). He also likes to fool around a bit with his instruments.

“I have a thing called a mix-string mandola that I worked up,” he said of some creative adjustments he made to the alto instrument (related to a mandolin in the same way as a viola is to a violin). “I was fooling with it one day and decided to try something with strings … instead of doubling the strings, I put it in octaves.”

But at his open mic nights, he turns that creativity to building other artists up. He is a consummate cheerleader; as someone who has performed at one of his open mics, I can say that I’d never felt so welcomed and supported as an amateur singer. His love of music is only eclipsed by his clearly evident love of musicians, which is why it’s unsurprising that not only has his open mic been going strong for 40 years, but that so many well-known local artists are playing his 40th anniversary party.

“Trevor Hopkins kept pushing me to get my 40th anniversary show done. He’s the one who brought up doing Wildwood,” Knight said. “Wildwood’s different, but it’s really nice in a lot of ways.”

He’d hoped for the anniversary show to be the kick-off of the re-established series at the new location, but the Delta surge kept events small right at the time he’d hoped to do it. Now he’s got over a month of open mics at the new location under his belt, and is slowly starting to get used to the new way of doing things.

“I was used to doing everything myself!” Knight said of his time at The Mill; at Wildwood, they’ve always got someone in place who handles each thing he needs done.

But he’s very excited that their sound system may afford him a way to bring back one of the staples of the early years of his open mics at The Mill: giving each performer a recording of their set after the show.

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