Talent is the ante. Many have it. What you do with it is what matters. Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler are blue-collar workers. They take their immense natural talent, put it to the side and roll up their sleeves, building songs like brick walls --- a note at a time. As the notes pile up, they sound effortless, eternal, as if they could have been served up in no other way. Which is why Knopfler and Harris's CDs feel like houses: solid, honest, as permanent as anything mortals can create.
They're houses in another way too --- as places of refuge. Put a Knopfler or Harris CD on, and the world feels right. His sure slow hand, cousin to J.J. Cale, a fluid contrast to his refreshingly non-professional voice. The angelic clarity of her voice, cutting and floating, suspended in time and space, as close to perfection as we'll know in this life.
Together, there's nothing they can't do: iron strength, gossamer delicacy, you name it.
This CD is what happens when people working at the top of their game make art just to please themselves. No one was begging for this CD. Few knew that, six or seven years ago, Harris and Knopfler cut two songs together for a album of his, then decided to expand the collaboration. Money? A non-issue. Knopfler's recordings with Dire Straits add up to 100 million CDs sold. Emmylou's catalogue goes back 30 years; she lives modestly in Nashville, she'd rather work than shop.
I've interviewed Knopfler. He's wicked smart, and funny in a way that deflects attention from the smartness and its twin, sensitivity. I'm sure there's a performer side of him, and that he has the ego to dazzle whole arenas. But what comes across more readily is the pleasure that runs through him as he takes a guitar in hand. It's fine that he's not such a great singer --- his guitar sings for him. It's full-bodied, round, sincere.
Emmylou I see every chance I can. The experience never changes: This is an artist of unblemished integrity who can be in the moment as well as anyone who ever sang country. But she's grown beyond country to a genre that could be called American roots but might better be left nameless --- it's just her music. You don't want to reach the pearly gates without the thrill of a live performance by Emmylou Harris.
No collaboration is equal. Knopfler wrote ten of the twelve songs --- Harris is not a prolific writer --- and the band is his. That's plus two, right there. Knopfler is a wonderful songwriter, colloquial, effortless, heartfelt, light. And his band is authoritative, especially his drummer, Chad Cromwell, who lays down the most confident beat in pop music.
There are duets, and they're satisfying. But even better are the songs that have them own alternate verses. Like the first song. Knopfler begins:
They say there's wreckage washing up
All along the coast
No one seems to know too much
Of who got hit the most
Nothing has been spoken
There's not a lot to see
But something has been broken
That's how it feels to me
Then Emmylou comes in, with words that sound as if they were written just for her --- because they were:
We had a harmony
I never meant to spoil
Now it's lying in the water
Like a slick of oil
The tide is running out to sea
Under a darkening sky
The night is falling down on me
You hear those two verses, and every muscle relaxes. You are in the hands of masters. Who provide, as masters do, rich variety. There's even a jukebox hit: "This Is Us."
The last song, "If This Is Goodbye," was inspired by the phone calls made by the passengers of Flight 93 on September 11. Knopfler's guitar has never been more fluid and elegaic. His writing has never been simpler:
My famous last words
Are laying around in tatters
Whatever I try
But I love you
And that's all that really matters
If this is goodbye
If this is goodbye
Even on happy songs, Emmylou's voice has a hint of heartbreak in the background. What's great about her approach to "If This Is Goodbye" is that she never gives way to it, never exploits what anyone would be feeling "spinning unheard/in the dark of the sky." Love triumphs. It's an absolute. That's not a matter of conviction --- it's knowledge. The song is almost a lullaby, sung by the dying to the survivor. Of all the 9/11 music, it stands alone.
It's just great that the CD's final song ends with a bluesy guitar and Emmylou singing wordlessly. Dreamy. Like the entire CD: something you dreamed, something better than reality.
"All the Roadrunning" is everything you could possibly want. A "ten best," desert-island disc. Background music. A throwaway collection of tunes for the road. A fan might say, with deep pleasure, "I've waited seven years for this." But the truth is, we've been waiting all our lives. And so have Knopfler and Harris.
To buy "All the Roadrunning" from Amazon.com, click here.