Gretchen Peters Talks Mark Knopfler’s Tracker

An artist who knows that less is more, Mark Knopfler isn’t getting older, he’s getting better.

When Dire Straits first appeared on my radio in the late ’70s, led by Mark Knopfler’s limber Stratocaster and gruff voice, they were lumped in with all the other new wave bands from the UK, however stylistically unrelated they were. I was a budding singer-songwriter who cut her teeth on the confessional California folk-rock of the mid ’70s, and new wave was definitely not my thing. But I was working in a record store where you had to play the new albums over the store sound system to entice customers into buying them. I wore the grooves off the first Dire Straits album on that turntable at Rocky Mountain Tapes & Records in Boulder, Colorado.

Knopfler’s guitar has always been his second voice, whether it’s the National Resonator guitar he played in “Romeo and Juliet,” the iconic Stratocaster sound of early Dire Straits or the distorted Les Paul in “Money for Nothing.” That hasn’t changed on Tracker; the guitars are everywhere, singing.

Tracker opens with “Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes,” a loose 6/8 groove underpinning Celtic fiddles and whistles, as if the Allman Brothers had turned up at an Irish pub. It’s typically disarming and off-the-cuff — no drama, just deft and understated playing and singing. It doesn’t announce itself or the album’s themes in any overt way. It’s musicians at play, with a funky time signature and swelling organ lines.

Truly great musicians, it is often said, play less and less as they mature. The space between the notes is perhaps the most important part of music, but it’s usually the last thing musicians learn. The stellar musicians who play on Tracker, including co-producer Guy Fletcher (piano and organ), Mike McGoldrick (whistle and flute), John McCusker (fiddle), Glenn Worf (bass) and drummer Ian Thomas, say more with less than a thousand pop records (as does Knopfler himself), and Ruth Moody’s gentle, ethereal vocals and Phil Cunningham’s exquisite accordion are the very soul of restraint.

But it’s the lyrics that quietly devastate. Somehow Knopfler’s songwriting always seems to be overshadowed by his guitar prowess or by Dire Straits’ massive mainstream success, but he is a born storyteller. “Basil” is a filmic sketch of the English poet Basil Bunting, whom a young Mark Knopfler encountered during his own stint as a copy boy at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. It’s a powerful statement about art and the real-world cost of making it; “Put the poems in sacks, and bury me here with the hacks.” It’s not surprising that Knopfler was inspired by Bunting, who once said, “Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.” They seem to be kindred spirits, both intuitively understanding the link between words and sounds (perhaps it’s why Knopfler has such an uncanny ability to make his guitar speak as if human). He inhabits Bunting, his voice all autumnal regret on the line “And I’ve kissed a Gateshead girl….”

Knopfler picks up this thread later in Tracker when he pays tribute to author and aviator Beryl Markham, who was never properly recognized for her literary accomplishments in her lifetime but was awarded a special Booker Prize posthumously. Indeed, there’s a keen sense of taking stock that weaves its way through the record, a tallying of the indignities and slights of a (mostly) unrewarded artist’s life.

Knopfler has said that “Lights of Taormina” and “Silver Eagle” “came into being partly through my trips in Europe and the U.S. with Bob Dylan,” and you can feel Dylan in both songs, a sympathetic but almost ghost-like presence; always moving, always restless and, ultimately, distant. He’s one iteration of a character that reasserts himself throughout the album: the artist coming to terms with the heavy cost of making art.

In the woozy “Lights of Taormina,” Knopfler seems to be vocally channeling latter-day Bob — half crooning, half croaking. From the distant vantage point of age, he delivers an atmospheric sketch of a long-ago love that slipped away. Phil Cunningham’s accordion flutters delicately around the travelogue lyrics. The protagonist is an “emperor” and a “wanderer,” a Dylanesque figure who’s conquered the world, only to find that the world is not what he wants.

“Silver Eagle,” a beautifully spare track with not much more than fingerpicked guitar and Fletcher’s restrained piano chords, is a road song full of longing and regret. It quietly delivers the bottom line: the cost of living a life in constant motion, a musician’s occupational state.

“Mighty Man” and “Broken Bones” are both inhabited by men coming to terms with the loss of their youth, their strength and the physicality that defines them as men. In “Broken Bones” he neatly lays out the masculine code: “You take it like a man, on the chin/And you don’t make a fuss when the towel comes in.” Both lyrics are more defined by what’s not said than what is — a hallmark not just of Knopfler’s lyric-writing, but of great lyrics in general.

Finally, “Wherever I Go,” the closing duet with Ruth Moody, is a dreamy track, a love song for wanderers and road dogs everywhere. In some sense, all the characters on this record are itinerant dreamers, near the end of the line and toting up the losses. And yet Tracker is not a dark album; it’s honest and reflective and self-deprecatingly humorous in places. Mark Knopfler the musician is as agile and loose-limbed as ever; Mark Knopfler the songwriter has acquired some of the patina of age, and his writing, always great, is all the better for it.

Gretchen Peters is a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer who received a Grammy nomination and CMA Song of the Year Award in 1995 for Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” a second Grammy nomination and ACM nomination for Patty Loveless’ “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” in 1996 and a 2003 Golden Globe nomination for her song “Here I Am,” featured in the Dreamworks film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Her discography boasts over 120 recordings with many iconic artists, including George Jones, George Strait, Etta James, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Pam Tillis, Anne Murray, Randy Travis, Neil Diamond, the Neville Brothers, Bryan Adams and Bonnie Raitt, Her eighth studio album Blackbirds features a who’s who of modern American roots music (Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Suzy Bogguss and more). You can follow her on Twitter here.