Following the disbanding of rock giants Dire Straits in 1996, legendary UK guitarist Mark Knopfler spent four years scoring soundtracks for films such as Wag the Dog and Metroland before setting out to record his second solo album, Sailing to Philadelphia. On that record, the man known for "Walk of Life" and "Sultans of Swing" explored more subtle and folksier material than his prior work. While Knopfler's distinct fingerpicking and melancholy vocals remained, Sailing featured acoustic and pedal steel guitar, fiddle, and harmonica, revealing a more pastoral side. Sympathetic guest appearances from James Taylor, Van Morrison, and Gillian Welch further augmented its sound, but a track that never made the cut leads to Knopfler's performance at the UC Berkeley Greek Theatre this Friday.
"'Red Staggerwing' is a song I had written for that record and thought that Emmy would be dead right for," Knopfler says. "She agreed to record it, but once I heard Emmy singing on it, I realized that it was something all together its own. I had some more songs that were asking for Emmy too."
"Emmy" is none other than Emmylou Harris, the Nashville songstress famous for her musical relationship with Gram Parsons and even more so for her angelic, siren-song voice. She joins Knopfler onstage this week at the Greek after the two recorded an album of duets, All the Roadrunning, which was released in April.
The two first met on a Chet Atkins TV special in the '90s, but Knopfler remembers vividly his initial encounter with Harris. "I remember hearing one of her very first albums," he said about her 1975 classic Elite Hotel, "so I was a fan of Emmy's from the very beginning. Emmy kind of represents a universal female perspective or being in some ways. Besides being a terrific individual singer, she brings a lot of patience and love to her duet singing. She's just a remarkable talent in that regard. ... As soon as she sings the beginning of a song, the character she's embodying appears. I think she's been able to achieve that throughout her career. It's just so easy working with Emmy."
Not only did Knopfler and Harris share an appreciation for one another's work, their shared love of similar musical genres insured the cohesion of their collaboration. "'Red Staggerwing' has all the bantering, courting, and whatnot of those old June and Johnny Cash duets," Knopfler explains. "Both Emmy and I are huge fans of June and Johnny and those records. We both have a deep interest in gospel roots music. We both began with folk music at probably not too different times in the '60s our paths aren't too different really, musically speaking. ... She has a lot of the same reference points that I do as far as musical tastes are concerned."
All the Roadrunning was recorded in various studios over the course of two or three weeks of studio time, through the sessions themselves spanned nearly seven years. The result is an album that ages from track to track from young love in "This Is Us" and "Red Staggerwing" to love for your children in "Love and Happiness for You" to saying goodbye to a loved one on "If This Is Goodbye."
"'Love and Happiness' was a song Emmy brought with her that was such a powerful thing to do," Knopfler says. "It seemed to be so much a part of the record because we're both parents. It's such a simple song, because it's what every parent wishes love and happiness for your children. There's something also about the fact that both of us are parents singing this song that adds to the picture and the overall feeling. ... It completed the story the other songs on the album were telling, from young love to marriage and family to wishing love and happiness for your children to having to say goodbye."
More than anything, All the Roadrunning accomplishes what few albums pairing two artists who have never performed together achieve harmony. Knopfler's subdued vocals and melodic guitar playing blend beautifully with Harris' celestial harmonies, her Hall-of-Fame calling card.
"It's what Emmy calls a 'third voice.' It has nothing to do with us ... rather, I know it had very little to do with me," Knopfler laughs. "It's just a third voice that's created by two people singing together. For these songs, I just felt that it had to have Emmy. I think our voices worked very well together and in the end, it was just a great gift having a chance to sing with Emmy. It's been one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had. This record was a real gift for me."
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