Knopfler Kronikles (Part 8): MARK AND EMMYLOU

Knopfler Kronikles (Part 7)


by Norman Warwick

Each party was deep into their careers before they finally recorded together, but Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris made every step count of All the Road-running that led up to the album of that name, released in 2006 

Nevertheless, writing in the Independent in April of that year James McNair dismissively acknowledged that the American reality TV show, Just the Two Of Us had taken liberties with the duet, Curtis Stigers and Penny Smith packing all the finesse of Arthur Mullard and Hilda Baker (right) covering “You’re the One That I Want” in 1978. The cringe factor can make such antics a hoot, of course, but true aficionados of the form will naturally look elsewhere.

Many of them have alighted on the career of country great Emmylou Harris, not least because she has duetted with the likes of Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson. Country-rock lore being what it is, however, Harris’s singing with the doomed troubadour Gram Parsons has generated more column-inches. “Gram taught me how to sing; he gave me a reason to sing,” Harris has said of the songwriter and one-time member of The Byrds who out-partied Keith Richards. Her love affair with Parsons was never consummated, but when they covered “Love Hurts” together, the chemistry was quite something.

That was an age ago, long before Harris, aged 60, and ex-Dire Straits linchpin Mark Knopfler released All the Road Running, a gorgeous, thoughtful, many-faceted duets album that was seven years in the making. Knopfler, 56, seems aware that his duetting with someone’s of Harris’s ilk might raise eyebrows among those familiar with his parlando vocals.

“Don’t forget I’ve risked the theatre of humiliation before,” he says, his craggy features settling into a smile. “I’ve got in there with Van Morrison and George Jones and lived to tell the tale. I’m not posing as a great singer or anything, but I think I’ve been steadily improving since I gave up cigarettes. Around 1996, I was down to a gasp and a whisper. I thought I’d better drag myself away from the edge of the grave.”

Knopfler and Harris first met on a Chet Atkins (left) TV special in 1987; today they are holding court in a huge suite in London’s Chelsea Harbour. Knopfler (warm, self-deprecating, dressed in black, as best flatters older rock stars) calls Harris “Em”, and gently teases her as one might tease a sister. Harris (perfect nose, string of pearls, dignified in her grey-haired beauty) takes it all in good part.

“When you combine two unique voices,” she explains, “it creates a third, phantom voice. Some of those phantoms are more pleasant than others, but I love the third voice that Mark and I create. We noticed right away that our voices blended pretty effortlessly.”

Sporadic it may have been, but the recording of All the Road Running was similarly carefree. Two of its tracks – the playful, Cajun-sounding courting song “Red Staggerwing” and the acoustic ballad “Donkey Town” – were originally slated for Knopfler’s 2000 solo album Sailing to Philadelphia. “But then I started hearing voices, if you’ll excuse the expression, and Em put her vocals on them one Thanksgiving evening in Nashville and they sounded great.”

Further sessions were undertaken in 2002 and 2004, the pair now cutting songs from the ground up with the cream of Nashville’s session players. But then came more solo albums (Harris’s Stumble Into Grace in 2003, Knopfler’s Shangri-La in 2004), and the attendant tours and promotional activities put the release of their duets album on hold.

“The crazy thing is that, if you add up the actual recording time, it was less than two weeks,” says Harris. “But Mark was so busy that I got the tracks he mixed two at a time over a period of years. It was frustrating, because I had rough mixes of all these great songs, and he’d be like: ‘Don’t play them to a soul until they’re finished!’ I was a good girl scout, though.”

Listening to All the Road Running, I’d wondered if the opener, “Beachcombing”, a song about loss, peppered with Knopfler’s expressive, finger-style lead guitar, had been inspired by Hurricane Katrina or the December 2004 tsunami. The line in its lyric that runs: “They say there’s wreckage washing up all along the coast…” seemed an obvious clue, but Knopfler says he wrote the song long before the tragedies. The guitar virtuoso can be a hesitant interviewee, his careful choosing of words perhaps a throwback to his previous career as a journalist and a desire to give good quote. While he ruminates, Harris often takes over, her manner supportive rather than domineering.

All the Roadrunning is a collaboration between British singer-songwriter and guitarist Mark Knopfler and American singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris, released on 24 April 2006 by Mercury Records and Universal Music internationally, and by Warner Bros. Records in the United States. The album received favorable reviews, and reached the number one position on album charts in Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland. The album peaked at number eight in the United Kingdom, and number 17 on the Billboard 200 in the United States. The title track, which actually was released the year before as a new track on the compilation album Private Investigations, was released as a single and reached number 8 in the UK. “This Is Us” was released as the first single, followed by “Beachcombing”. The album was the result of a longtime collaboration between the two artists. Over the course of seven years, the songs were recorded by the pair with minimal information released about the project. A follow-up live album, Real Live Roadrunning, was released following All the Roadrunning Tour.

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris (right) have had long histories of collaborating with and supporting other artists. In addition to 23 solo albums and three successful collaborative albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, Harris has recorded backing and duet vocals with many of the significant recording artists of her generation, including The BandJohn DenverBob DylanGram ParsonsTownes Van ZandtTammy Wynette and Neil Young. Knopfler had also been involved in a number of collaborative projects, recording duets with such artists as Van Morrison and James Taylor, and contributing guitar tracks to numerous recordings by other artists, including The ChieftainsEric ClaptonKris KristoffersonSonny LandrethKate & Anna McGarrigleStingTina TurnerSteely Dan, and Jimmy Webb. Both shared a love of country music and an admiration for one of country music’s guitar masters, Chet Atkins. In 1990, Atkins and Knopfler recorded a collaborative album Neck and Neck, but their friendship went back even further. Knopfler and Harris first met while appearing on a Chet Atkins television special in 1987. They stayed in touch, and about ten years later in Nashville, Knopfler played a few of his songs for Harris, and the idea to record together emerged

All the Roadrunning was recorded sporadically over a seven-year period. Two of its tracks, the Cajun-style “Red Staggerwing” and the acoustic ballad “Donkey Town”, were originally planned to be included in Knopfler’s 2000 solo album Sailing to Philadelphia. On Thanksgiving evening in 1998, at a recording session in Nashville, Knopfler and Harris ran through the two songs with Harris adding her vocals. The session sparked the idea for a collaborative album of duets. Harris later recalled, “When you combine two unique voices it creates a third, phantom voice…. I love the third voice that Mark and I create. We noticed right away that our voices blended pretty effortlessly.” 

Further recording sessions took place in 2002 and 2004, with the pair recording songs from the ground up, supported by some of the best Nashville session players. Their duets album was interrupted by their individual solo projects—Harris’s Stumble into Grace in 2003 and Knopfler’s Shangri-La in 2004—and their supporting tours and promotional activities.

“If This Is Goodbye” is based on the last telephone calls to loved ones from the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, after being hijacked by terrorists.

Knopfler and Harris supported the release of All the Roadrunning with the All the Roadrunning Tour of Europe and North America, which started on 26 May 2006 in Brussels, Belgium, and included 23 concerts in 23 cities, ending in Berkeley, California, on 30 June 2006.[8] The tour lineup included Mark Knopfler (guitar, vocals), Emmylou Harris (guitar, vocals), Guy Fletcher (keyboards), Richard Bennett (guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle, mandolin), Matt Rollings (keyboards), Glenn Worf (bass), and Danny Cummings (drums). The concert on 28 June 2006 at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Los Angeles was recorded and released as a live album and DVD, Real Live Roadrunning, on 14 November 2006 by Mercury Records and Universal Music internationally, and by Warner Bros. Records in the United States.

In his review for the Winnipeg Sun, Darryl Sterdan gave the album four out of five stars, calling the collaboration a “match made in heaven”. Sterdan continued:

At first blush, you’d think Mark Knopfler’s Dylanesque croak and Emmylou Harris’s angelic tones would be a beauty-and-the-beast scenario. But we are glad to report this decidedly odd couple make some seriously beautiful music together on All the Roadrunning. Granted, this is nothing new for Emmylou, who has partnered with virtually every important roots and country artist of the last 30 years and never failed to make them shine just a little brighter. But the bulk of the credit really here has to go to Knopfler. He’s the dominant force on the disc, acting as co-producer and penning all but one of these elegantly rootsy songs

Sterdan praised Knopfler’s songwriting on the album, especially “This is Us”, “Right Now”, and the “Celtic-tinged bluegrass” of “Red Staggerwing”. Sterdan also noted Knopfler’s production, approaching the project with a lighter touch than on his past projects, and wisely reining in his signature guitar work enough to highlight Harris’ singing. In his review for The Telegraph, Neil McCormick wrote that Knopfler and Harris recorded a “remarkable new album” that is a “collection of rich, mature songs that reflect their combined life experiences”, and that is “one of the best albums of both their careers”.

In his review for Entertainment WeeklyJosh Tyrangiel gave the album a B− score, writing that the two artists “seem oddly matched” and that Knopfler’s guitar work tends to overwhelm Harris’ vocals.

You can´t please everyone, so you´d better please yourself.

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