Brian McKnight on new Lifetime movie 'A Country Christmas Story'

african kings

Brian McKnight is on the phone. His voice sounds as velvety as the ballads for which he’s known, and his manner is as warm as the sunny spot he’s calling from: Hollywood. Not the celebrity-soaked town, but the quieter one down in Florida.

“I’m on tour,” explains the Grammy-nominated crooner, who’d just finished a sound check and was enjoying some down time before performing at Hard Rock Live, where he headlined a show Friday night along with Musiq Soulchild and Avant.

It’s a busy, productive period for McKnight—and happily so. After a flurry of controversy caused by a risqué song he posted in 2012 on YouTube, the acclaimed singer, songwriter and producer moved past the drama to release his 15th CD “More Than Words” earlier this year. Now he’s back on the road with recent stops in Brazil and Jamaica and is selling out venues across the country.

In the midst of all this, McKnight found time to co-star in an original movie that premieres tonight on Lifetime Television and kicks off the network’s holiday programming.

“A Country Christmas Story” stars the iconic Dolly Parton, McKnight and newcomer Desiree Ross in the tale of a biracial teenage girl from a small Appalachian town who sings in the church choir and dreams of one day becoming a country music star.

Fourteen-year-old Grace is also dealing with the aftermath of her parent’s nasty divorce: namely, a bitter mama who believes music will limit her child’s life options, and an absentee father who’s fallen short of his own dreams of stardom.

McKnight plays the daddy, a gifted R & B musician named Danny who regrets losing his family, but is struggling with his own broken spirit. In one of many tearful, emotional scenes with his daughter, the character tells her there’s “No career, no album, no money. Just me.”

McKnight didn’t go asking for the part, he says. Rather, the producers sought out the platinum-selling artist whose love songs topped `90s cross-over playlists and whose latest single “Sweeter” has climbed urban charts.

He brings his distinctive sound to the sweet, family-oriented movie—which boasts everything from rousing gospel to toe-tapping country music. Viewers will get to hear both Parton and McKnight perform solos and play guitar, along with fine performances by fellow cast-members.

“They sent me a script and asked if I could do this role,” says McKnight, who’s done Broadway and a handful of films but doesn’t typically pursue acting roles. “But when things are thrown my way, I’ll consider it. This had a lot of dynamics.”

Indeed. Grace explores her musical gifts and eventually does what so many budding singers do these days; she enters an American Idol-style talent competition hosted by Parton.

The young teen’s journey to the stage at Dollywood (the real life theme park in Tennessee) not only sets her family on the road towards healing, but sheds light the musical legacy of African-Americans in the world of country music.

While Grace initially believes that “country music doesn’t come in my color,” she’s given a history lesson that delves into a deeper truth.

The legendary Charley Pride and contemporary singers a la former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker may be the only current African American members of the Opry, according to a spokeswoman, but the genre hasn’t always been so homogenous.

“A Country Christmas Story” makes multiple references to early African-American entertainers who were successful in country music, including DeFord Bailey—a renowned harmonica player in the 1920s, `30s and `40s who was both the first black man to play Nashville’s renowned Grand Ole Opry and its first performer ever.

Grace is also inspired by hearing about Linda Martell, a country and R & B singer who broke ground to become the first black woman to perform at the Opry back in 1969. There’s even a scene in the movie where Grace’s choir director thumbs through a book with instruments that originated in Africa such as early versions of the banjo.

For a musician like Knight—a music prodigy with a church upbringing who plays nine instruments—the origins of country music were not surprising.

“You have to remember that once upon a time, music was not segregated,” he says. “Blacks and whites, everyone, listened to everything from spirituals to country music. In this film you’ll see that.”

McKnight also appreciated the opportunity that this role gave him to learn more about film production, noting that “I really enjoy that whole behind the scenes thing.”

A good deal of the movie was filmed on location in Los Angeles, where McKnight lives with his two 20-something sons, Niko and Brian Jr. Like their father and uncles (part of the group Take 6), they possess the family musicality genes. Last year, father and sons launched their own label – Trif3cta Records and they’re also producing other artists under the moniker “C.A.T.S”— short for Care About The Sound.

“As a parent, you have to know who your children are and what they want and support them,” McKnight says when asked if he’s grooming his offspring for the tough entertainment industry. He pauses thoughtfully. “They may say they want something-and sometimes they’re not sure. You have to help guide them.”

As the movie unfolds, McKnight’s character begins to lovingly guide his screen daughter. He hopes fans will connect with his portrayal of Danny, who is referenced early in the plot but doesn’t appear until 30 minutes or so into the film—which runs a little over two hours.

That’s fine by McKnight, who is so engaged in making music and touring (he does about 100 shows a year) that he has yet to see the movie in its entirety.

“I hate watching myself,” he says, chuckling. “I’ve DVR’d it and will sit down and watch when I come home from the road.”