Mark Knopfler, the king of '80s adult pop, the grizzled voice and slick guitar that fueled Dire Straits. Emmylou Harris, the godmother of Cosmic American Music, her ethereal harmonies a muse for Gram Parsons and many subsequent left-field country troubadours. It might sound like an odd combination, but the roots-flavored duet album "All the Roadrunning," released last week, is the fruit of seven years of occasional collaboration, and many more of close friendship. We met at a New York hotel to discuss their new record and the current state of country music.
You say you've been working on this record for seven years. How did you first meet? When did you first begin making music together?
Emmylou Harris: That's a really long question! We first met physically at the Chet Atkins tribute special, probably late '80s, right Mark? Something like that, do you think?
Mark Knopfler: Yeah.
EH: You know, we still haven't got our little sheet with all our things, like they put in a book.
MK: Emmy's really bad at history and I'm worse. A lot worse.
EH: We socialized through mutual friends that we had in Nashville, through our publishing company. But musically, this whole project started with a call from Mark to see if I would sing a harmony part on a couple of tracks that were going to be on his record "Sailing to Philadelphia." I'm going to turn it over to Mark, because at some point, he got the idea that those two songs might be part of something else, and he kept them off of "Sailing to Philadelphia."
MK: "Sailing to Philadelphia" just seemed to me to [have] a pretty masculine geography, somehow, and as soon as I heard Emmy, she made a whole other shape, and I thought it really needed to be on its own. She'll do that!
Is it a different process, working with Mark, who doesn't come from an obvious country background?
EH: Oh no, I didn't come as a full-fledged country singer [either].
MK: There's one country song on the album, though, isn't there? "Love and Happiness" is real straight country.
EH: Yes, it's real straight country, and I had to have help to write that, because those are the hardest songs to write, I think.
MK: And difficult to record well.
EH: Because you're working within such narrow parameters, you can't get clever, or cute, or fancy. I came as a student and late convert to country music. For me, it wasn't so much the availability of hearing that music, but there was quite a social stigma, of someone in the '60s, you know, with the civil rights movement. Country music was considered redneck and prejudicial, and coming from a terrible social situation.
Country has crossed more into the mainstream since then. Does that process work the other way -- could this album find an audience within "country" music?
EH: It doesn't really have an identity, not like it had in the days when you didn't have to be told who was singing. You knew it was Waylon Jennings. You knew it was Merle Haggard, you knew it was Kitty Wells, you knew it was Webb Pierce. Because they had a distinctive voice and a distinctive sound on the records. Buck Owens. How can you hear a Buck Owens record and not know it's Buck Owens, God rest his soul?
MK: I don't know how many years it's been since you listened to country radio. Would you say 20?
EH: It's been a long time, although, because of cable, now they have stations that play really hardcore country music.
MK: But I'm talking the main big [stations].
EH: Oh, it's been a long time.
MK: It's been going down for so long that people keep saying it can't get any worse, but that's been 20 years.
EH: But it keeps getting more popular. To me the people that are carrying the banner of -- and I put "country" in quotes, because roots country, the stuff that colors outside the lines, like Buddy and Julie Miller, and Gillian Welch, extraordinary artists. Steve Earle, you know, and Alison Krauss, [who] does get some mainstream success, but she's out there in her own world, in her own part of the baseball field, out there in left field, and she could care less what's going on, she's going to do her own thing.
It's interesting that there's this megamarket for what is now being called country alongside these artists who are, for me, some of the most important contributors to the well of real country music, existing side by side in completely different worlds. It's almost like they don't know about each other; audiences, whoever listens to mainstream country, doesn't know about these artists. And the people who listen to Gillian Welch will have nothing to do with what has been called mainstream country. It's almost like America itself, the red states and the blue states. It's very -- I can't think of the word because I'm too old -- polarized.
-- Matt Glazebrook