Former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler and country star Emmylou Harris have made a remarkable new album together - a collection of rich, mature songs that reflect their combined life experiences. They talk to Neil McCormick
Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris make an odd couple. She is a star-spangled legend of country rock, he is a bluff Scots-Geordie guitar hero. Yet together they have made one of the best albums of both their careers. Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris make an odd but successful musical couple
"I love this record so much, I actually listen to it," says the still elegantly beautiful, silver-haired Harris of All the Roadrunning. "Which is not something I could say about most records I have made."
And she has made a lot of records. As well as 23 solo and four collaborative albums, Harris has recorded backing and duet vocals with a veritable Who's Who of great Americana artists, including The Band, Johnny Cash, Bright Eyes, Bob Dylan, Little Feat, Tammy Wynette, Neil Young, Bill Monroe, Lyle Lovett, John Denver, Roy Orbison, Bonnie Raitt, Garth Brooks, Lucinda Williams and George Jones.
When Harris was setting new standards for country duets as a 24-year-old singing Love Hurts with the legendary Gram Parsons, Knopfler was a local journalist and struggling musician playing folk and blues gigs around the pubs and clubs of Yorkshire.
It was almost a decade before his band, Dire Straits, soared to stadium heights, propelled by his lilting, melodic songs and fluid, silvery guitar solos. Harris has one of the greatest, most flexible and easily recognisable voices in popular music.
As for Knopfler, well, he can hold a tune, as long as there aren't too many notes in it.
"It's been improving since I gave up the weed," he says. "I was down to a growl and a whisper."
"I've always loved Mark's voice," protests Harris. "It's so natural and conversational, the way he drags things around - he sings without any pretence."
"Thanks, Emmy," laughs Knopfler. "That's very charitable."
There is something about the combination of Harris's sweet, high tones and Knopfler's gruff baritone that is hugely appealing.
The album they have made together seems to glide effortlessly from the speakers, a collection of beautifully detailed, thoughtful, mature songs about the hard lives of ordinary people, delivered as duets in which Harris and Knopfler swap the lead role, their voices wrapping themselves around each other as if they have been doing it all their lives.
"I think of a harmony as an alternate melody that goes alongside the lead line in a slightly subordinate way," says Harris. "It's almost like you're dancing.
"When you put two voices together, a third voice is created, and it's always unique. Mark's voice put my voice in a very comfortable range, our blend was effortless, which isn't always the case."
"Emmy brings such a wealth of experience that it's like a director having the finest actress for a film," says Knopfler, who wrote the bulk of the songs. "What is on the page is given a real living dimension and a character who you can see."
Perhaps surprisingly, Harris reveals that she is an instinctive, rather than technical singer. "I like to think there is only one harmony part and it comes to me naturally.
"If it's an ensemble thing, like bluegrass, where I am expected to sing a particular part, I have to really study and have somebody guide me through.
"If a producer says, 'That's not that note, it's a half step down', I go, 'Oh God, please don't do this to me!' Either I hear the part or I don't hear it. Recording Mr Sandman [with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt] was a nightmare that I relive to this day!"
Listening to Harris and Knopfler talk, you get some sense of how they fit together. He has a slightly shambling presence, thoughtful and slow, with a roundabout manner of talking.
She is sharper, more focused and direct, often stepping in to finish his sentences. They pick up each other's threads, defer to each other with politeness born of mutual respect, their conversation weaving effortlessly in and out like a couple of old friends.
They have certainly had time to get to know each other, since the album has been almost 10 years in the making, although it involved only a few weeks in the studio, with sessions snatched when schedules allowed.
Befitting their ages (Harris is 59, Knopfler 56), it is an album for mature listeners, in the sense that it deals with genuinely adult subject matter, celebrating what Harris calls "ordinary extraordinary" lives: marriage, divorce, children, the little sacrifices we have to make to survive, and the small joys that make it worthwhile.
"We don't do great life affirmation, either of us, but we do pretty good misery," suggests Knopfler, but in fact there is something hugely life-affirming about an album so concerned with everyday realities.
"We've both been married, both been divorced. I hear that when Emmy sings. I hear the patience, the compassion, the experience."
"We're all sort of one paycheck away from a trailer park in our lives," says Harris. "We've all been there. People want the same things: somebody to love us and appreciate us for who we are. It's hard to find."
In the years since Dire Straits' epic rock, Knopfler has been shaping up as a substantial songwriter, crafting little gems of character-driven storytelling.
"In Dire Straits I went through a stage where I was into this psycho acoustic stuff, using footsteps and heavy breathing, breaking glasses in the studio, starting cars in the car park, you name it.
"If I thought the song needed a concrete mixer, I'd put a microphone in it. I was just experimenting. You grow and you realise that it's a song. Simple things are best. You shouldn't impose yourself on it."
"Country music teaches you that the song is king," says Harris. "That is your northern star. That is what you guide your ship by. Mark first sat down with a guitar and played these songs to me by himself and that was the groundwork from which everything else was built."
Which is not to suggest that Knopfler has entirely abandoned his guitar heroics. "These days, I drive a family estate. But I can still be tempted to get the Porsche out."