Like many British musicians, Mark Knopfler grew up appreciating and fascinated by the rebels across the pond in the United States. Before Dire Straits and the success of “Sultans of Swing” in 1977, Knopfler was influenced by a wide variety of American artists including Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, JJ Cale and Chet Atkins.
In the summer of 1976, he took a long vacation in the United States. According to Myles Palmer’s unauthorized biography, Knopfler stayed with friends, talked to strangers and drenched himself in excess. It was during this time that he was building the confidence to leave behind his work as a teacher and journalist and pursue music in a major way.
While most of the songs on Dire Straits’ first three albums were heavily influenced by their experiences in the UK, their American fascination began to manifest on 1982’s “Love Over Gold” album. The title track, “Telegraph Road,” was written during the band’s first American tour, and the song was written about the birth and eventual death of an American city. The Telegraph Road in question is apparently somewhere in Michigan, which Knopfler observed from a seat on a tour bus.
As Dire Straits’ fame and stardom waned with the success of “Brothers in Arms”, Mark returned to his early interests in country music and country-blues. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Knopfler was lucky enough to play with his hero, Chet Akins, during a Nashville TV special. His special friendship and two-person mutual admiration society continued until Atkins’ death in 2001. Knopfler’s fan band, The Notting Hillbillies, was 100% pure country and blues music.
Dire Straits’ latest album, “On Every Street,” featured several very obvious odes to the US in the title track (“fireworks over Liberty explode in the heat” influenced by their experiences in New York) and “The Planet of New Orleans.” “Calling Elvis” continues to trace Knopfler’s fascination with the King. One of Nashville’s brightest stars at the time, singer-songwriter Vince Gill, actually worked as a session musician for the album.
His second solo album, 2000’s “Sailing to Philadelphia,” pushed England into the background with just a few homespun tunes. Instead, “Do America,” “Speedway at Nazareth,” “The Sands of Nevada,” “Prairie Wedding,” and the title track were steeped in Americana. It’s an appreciation and admiration for the country that Knopfler brings to the music; it is rarely something derogatory. 2004’s “Shangri-La” featured tributes to famous (infamous?) Americans like McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, boxer Sonny Liston and Elvis again.
Mark Knopfler’s most recent album of duets with Emmylou Harris has all but left England behind and replaced it with a longing and enjoyment of country that comes with age and experience. Knopfler has been widely quoted as saying that the tragic events of September 11, 2001 in New York influenced several of the album’s songs. It’s no coincidence that his touring band over the last ten years has featured some of the most successful session musicians from, where else? — Nashville, Tenn.