All the Roadrunning
Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris
Release date April 24, 2006 (UK) April 25, 2006 (USA)
Release date April 24, 2006 (UK) April 25, 2006 (USA)
2. I Dug Up a Diamond
3. This Is Us
4. Red Staggerwing
5. Rollin' On
6. Love and Happiness
7. Right Now
8. Donkey Town
9. Belle Starr
10. Beyond My Wildest Dreams
11. All The Roadrunning
12. If This Is Goodbye
Listen to the songs
The Aurora Review
13 minute online interview
Esquire and more
Perhaps All the Roadrunning, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris's extraordinary new set of duets, can best be described by simply borrowing the name of the track that will surely be spinning at discerning radio stations any second now: This Is Us. All The Roadrunning is not a high-concept, elaborately planned superstar summit, but a collection of intimate musical encounters recorded in the US over the last seven years, whenever these two already legendary artists could steal a few moments away from the demands of their hectic careers. This long-range collaboration culminated in 2005 with a solid week in the studio, where they cut more tracks and decided upon a final line-up before Mark took everything back home with him to mix in London. The result is far more than just a miracle of scheduling: it sounds like destiny, a record they were meant to make.
Despite the time and distance between recording dates, All the Roadrunning comes across as a seamless work, with a comfortable, old-school-session feel about it. Mark shared production chores with engineer-mixer Chuck Ainlay, who's manned the boards for Dire Straits (On Every Street) and all of Knopfler's solo recordings. They recruited a lineup of familiar players and old friends like guitarist Richard Bennett and Dire Straits keyboardist Guy Fletcher to join them, many of whom were familiar faces from Mark and Emmylou's own records. The arrangements they fashioned were evocative and understated, featuring plenty of Mark's signature guitar work while focusing the spotlight on those two instantly recognizable voices. Listen to Mark and Emmylou, with his voice slightly above hers as she essays the main melody on any one of these numbers, and you'll swear they must have been harmonizing like this for a lifetime. The material they brought to the studio, original songs written by each of them, matches the beauty of the vocals. They're often wistful, worldly-wise stories of resilient characters who have lived more than a little but remain determined to carry on. They have the heart-tugging appeal and durability of great country ballads while avoiding obvious sentimentality or nostalgia. These songs are going to be around for a while.
Recalling their last round of recording, roots-music icon Emmylou says, "It was just an extraordinarily wonderful experience for somebody like me who's a workaholic, who doesn't take vacations. This was like the ultimate time away from my stuff. I was involved with it, but not in charge of it. I could be the Ginger Rogers to Mark's Fred Astaire. I could just sit back and marvel at how he is as a producer, as a musician, as an incredible songwriter. And we had all those great musicians, several of whom I knew very well. It was just a wonderful week in the studio. We got more excited with each track we finished."
Mark admits, "I felt very honored and very humbled to have all these amazing talents around because I just feel like a little Brit strummer. Emmy and I both love these kinds of musicians. She's got a reverence for the musicians and the music that's second to nobody's and it comes through in everything she says and does. Every man in the band is playing for us and is trying his very hardest and that comes through on the album."
Emmylou adds, "Mark is very much in control and knows what he wants, but on the other hand, he understands the mystical process that happens when you make a record and the record becomes what it is. It has everything to do with the people involved, but there's this other ingredient, of something that's set in motion. When I heard all the songs together, it was so listenable, and I mean that in the most positive way. It's a very rich album, musically and lyrically, yet it doesn't require a lot of work. You don't see any sweat on it, although obviously there was lot of labor that went into it, mostly on the part of Mark and the musicians. I got to sit there and sing, and that's what I love to do better than just about anything."
Emmylou's collaborative credits include her platinum-selling work with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt on Trio, and, more recently, a guest-starring spot with youthful admirer Conor Oberst on Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and on Neil Young's acclaimed A Prairie Wind. "Red Staggerwing" and "Donkey Town," two of the songs that make their debut here, were recorded for Mark's 2000 solo album Sailing To Philadelphia, but he liked what he heard so much that he kept them off the album in hopes that Emmylou might cut more tracks with him. Mark and Emmylou both recall certain other milestones in their shared history, such as their first-ever meeting when they both appeared on a TV special with one of Mark's guitar heroes and collaborator Chet Atkins and the sessions they later were part of for Lost Highway's 2001 Hank Williams tribute album. They don't dwell on past details, however, because theirs is a unique, still-evolving relationship; they marvel at not only having an album completed but also a summer tour on deck, for both Europe and North America, featuring songs from All the Roadrunning and other duets from both their own and other albums. It is sure to be a series of very special musical events.
"I think we'll have a lot of fun on the road," Mark says. "It will be very much a bunch of people just trying to play the best music they can."
'"Beachcombing,'" which leads off the album, appears to have a topical bent, given imagery that suggests the damage of Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Tsunami, but Mark points out that the song predates those events. It's a song about loss, both physical and emotional. The climactic track, "If This Is Goodbye," however, is definitely rooted in our modern history, inspired by a sober and eloquent piece, "Beyond Belief," that the English novelist Ian McEwan had written for London's The Guardian some days after 9/11. It's a subtle and respectful track and, as Emmylou characterizes it, "a song of healing": "When Mark was playing it for me, I thought this is a beautiful, sad love song, then he told me more about it. I found it very difficult to sing that song. I was very close to tears during the recording of it. Even talking about it, I get emotional. It's a song that gets beyond anything political, it's a song about those individuals and the tragedy that happened and puts it in a context that anyone can embrace. It's not a red song or a blue song, it's just about human beings and the terrible things that can sometimes happen."
Mark and Emmylou bring a lighter touch to tracks like "Red Staggerwing" and "Belle Star," evoking the kind of teasing, affectionate banter that June Carter and Johnny Cash traded when they were in a "Jackson" mood. "Red Staggerwing" is a rollicking shuffle in which two lovers compare themselves to cars, motorcycles and, most appropriately for this pair, vintage guitars. As Emmylou sings, "If I was one of them Gibsons, like a '58 or '9/You could plug me in and play me anytime." On "Belle Star," she imagines herself as the Old West's most infamous female outlaw and he's her partner-in-crime, her personal Jesse James. It's all playful flirtation, but, as with Carter and Cash, there's some very grown-up feeling underneath. They play it for laughs, but still manage to set off sparks.
Much of All The Roadrunning relates to the life of the itinerant musician. As Emmylou explains, "Mark was very up on the theme of musicians out on the road, trying to juggle family and relationships and just the general wear and tear of being in the world." But, she says, the songs are also designed to be more universal in theme, "a good balance of the happiness and sadness that we all live with."
Besides the sheer pleasure of this remarkable duo's harmonies, it's the underlying emotions, the straight-from-life stories, that make All The Roadrunning essential listening. This is them - in songs that are plainspoken, poignant, powerful - but more than that, this is us.
-- Michael Hill