Hunter Callaway ’22 (he/him), Senior Political Correspondent
Georgia Hall ’25 (she/her), SGA Correspondent
The applause took a few seconds to begin when Rusty Knox, Davidson town mayor, finished his first set at Hop and Vine last Saturday. But Rusty was ready for a distracted crowd and quickly joked “thanks for the late clap, that’s what you bring back from Myrtle Beach.” As charmingly vulgar as he is sensitively restrained, Rusty Knox does not fit the stereotype of a small-town mayor. Nonetheless, once you see Rusty juggle the roles of musician and mayor in real time, you will quickly realize how uniquely this job suits him.
After the first hour, a broken string forced Rusty to take a break and he joined members of the Davidsonian for an interview. Mayor of Davidson, a father, and a real estate agent, Knox is also an accomplished musician. He fell in love with music when, at 11 years old, his parents took him to see Jimi Hendrix open for the Monkees. Hendrix’s solo drew him to the guitar and later that year he had his first, and last, guitar lesson. Knox is instead more of a self-taught musician who finally felt ready to perform publicly at 47 years old.
He may have taken longer than usual to share his music, but today Rusty loves to play all venues. He began the night with “Whiskey Bottle” from his first album Reason Why. The largely middle-aged crowd met his signature twang and killer guitar licks with a round of applause. The mayor followed up with a cover of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” and hammered home a popping guitar solo, while his set partner, Jim, took a breather. Knox is a self-proclaimed forceful strummer of his guitar; this may mean he makes his way through more than a few strings, but it lends a unique vigor to his music.
Rusty writes music about life, love, loss, and rebirth (plus lighter subjects like mischief and drinking). Although he started the Rusty Knox Band to support his family after his real estate sector crashed in 2006, the unimaginative name might mislead you. Had he been given the choice, the band’s name would be “Rusty the Narcoleptic Dog,” based on a YouTube-famous dog Rusty found while looking for footage online of his performances. His bandmates turned down that idea, but the group performed until 2012, when he made the hard choice to start selling real estate again. “When you can make $300 playing for 3 hours or $12,000 closing a deal for 3 hours,” Rusty lamented, the choice is obvious. Life on the road, despite his love for music, proved too large a strain on his family after six years of touring.
How does someone who considers themself “not very political” end up a politician? The fifth mayor in his immediate family, Rusty always felt strong ties to Davidson. In 2014, he started attending town meetings and found he disliked City Hall’s new plan to develop Main Street. He joined a grassroots movement to oppose what outlets at the time described as “the next Birkdale,” a large mixed-use development in Huntersville. They won that fight and the town cancelled the development, but Rusty felt unsatisfied. So, in 2017, he ran for mayor and won 57% of the vote. Reflecting on that election, Rusty recalled both the thrill of being elected and the terrifying reality that he would have to govern.
Knox had no political experience when he took office, but he brings a relentless energy to town hall that matches his booming laugh, long beard, and spirited playing. He considers himself best suited to building ties with neighboring communities and local changemakers rather than wielding political power. Fittingly, he seems most comfortable at the border between his musical and mayoral lives.
The Rusty Knox Band may be gone, but their namesake still regularly plays at coffee shops, local wine bars, and charity dinners. Each audience interaction, according to Rusty, is just as likely to be a citizen asking about new crosswalk signs as a fan wanting to talk music. A less grounded artist would scoff at political questions during a performance, while an ambitious politician would resent music overshadowing their career. Luckily for Davidson, Rusty wears both hats with ease and brings the same relaxed dedication to being mayor that he flaunts at live performances throughout Mecklenburg County.