It is anyone’s guess as to whether the former Dire Straits crooner and guitarist still gets chicks for free, but The Ragpicker’s Dream, the third in a growing sequence of brilliant solo albums released in the wake of Mark Knopfler’s former band, proves that he doesn’t get money for nothin’. Despite the speckles of genius Knopfler bestowed upon the music world with Dire Straits, the gritty, stylish honesty of the solo albums that have followed suggests that his old band’s demise was actually one of the best things that ever happened to rock ‘n roll. The break up facilitated Knopfler’s much-needed escape from the glaring spotlight of fame that Brothers in Arms imposed on him–a spotlight he never cared to stand in too long (he relishes the smaller venues his solo career allows him to perform in now that he doesn’t need to be the Sultan of Swing any longer.)
One of the problems with making a great record–especially one that makes a lot of money for people who had very little do with making it (the kind of people Pink Floyd sing about on Wish You Were Here’s “Have A Cigar”)–is that those same people then want you to make the same record again. And again. And again. And only in exchange for your life will they accept anything less. Just ask Joan Osborne, a tragically underrated singer who’s a hell of a lot more invested in the full-throated wail of “Right Hand Man”–complete with its meaty “I am the female Captain Beefheart” guitar licks—-than in the timid and predictable chart grab of “One of Us.”
But when she turned to her label a couple years later with a collection of rip-roaring rock that had clearly left behind all the mushy blather about God being “just a slob,” the label returned the album with a pink slip and wished her the best. Righteous Love, the consequently long-delayed follow-up to Relish, clung to its low spot on the charts for about five minutes before making its way to remaindered bins and flea markets across the country as her audience fled to less challenging thrills. If only someone could have been by Joan’s side as she dreamed of the transient glory she would someday capture: Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.
Joan Osborne: “Right Hand Man,” Relish (1995)
But Knopfler is no one-trick pony, and his solo work proves that, rather than merely the British J.J. Cale, he is a massively talented guitarist who brings as much curiosity as skill to the music he makes–a curiosity no Dire Straits album would ever have allowed him to indulge, especially after Brothers in Arms turned him into yet another of Rock ‘N Roll’s temporary gods. Most fans came to expect a certain sound from Dire Straits: the instantly captivating guitar licks and shuffling rhythm of “Money For Nothing” or “Sultans of Swing,” the chiming organ of “Walk of Life,” or the jangling hooks of “So Far Away.”
But the conventional boundaries that confined Dire Straits ultimately became so exhausted that the band had nowhere left to turn. 1991’s On Every Street, the band’s farewell album, showcased Knopfler’s increasing enthusiasm for, among other sounds, the twang and wail of Nashville, playing with country legend Chet Atkins as well as the Notting Hillbillies. The days of MTV videos and duets with Sting were clearly a thing of the distant past. Any further projects with Dire Straits would only have typecast a talent whose borders stretch well beyond rock ‘n roll’s tired roads. Enter albums like Golden Heart with its flutters of fiddle and bagpipe, or the acoustic blues and ambient folk of Ragpicker’s Dream–an album which, six years later, sounds more like one of this dwindling decade’s top ten records with each passing listen.
When not recording solo, Knopfler is lending a hand on projects by performers as artistically opposed to his pop-rock past as Waylon Jennings, whose final album, Closing in on the Fire, features a ballad to which Knopfler contributes a guitar solo. On his own work, though, such nods to Nashville are becoming more routine than anomalous–cutting whole albums with torch-bearers of twang like Emmylou Harris. So it’s no great shock Ragpicker’s Dream expands Knopfler’s creative vision as widely as it does. It’s a rock album one minute and a ragtime session on the street corner the next.
Mark Knopfler: “Why Aye Man,” Ragpicker’s Dream (2002)
The album’s track list, including titles like “Daddy’s Gone to Nashville” and “Hillfarmer’s Blues,” reads more like a lost set of outtakes from the career of Dock Boggs, the late, Appalachian banjo master. While some of the songs on Ragpicker’s Dream might have gotten Boggs’ toe tapping, though, Knopfler’s homage to J.J. Cale continues. Brooding, slick guitar solos emerge throughout the album, from the frenetic licks of the sprawling opener and single “Way Aye Man” to more laid-black tutorials in country blues such as the title track or the ferocious “Marbletown.”
Sprightly and deeply textured, the soundscapes of songs like “You Don’t Know You’re Born” and “Coyote” bloom with bass, flickering drum beats, horns, percussion and Knopfler’s sly guitar. The production is crisp, clear and abundant with influence, making for an unusually varied set of songs that are at once spare and luxurious, as the haunting, folkish “Fare Thee Well Northumberland” gives way to “Daddy’s Gone to Nashville,” a blithe and thoroughly convincing tribute to Hank Williams. “It’s hard to find love anywhere / hard to find love anywhere,” he laments on one of the album’s many moving ballads, his earthy vocals caked in the Delta dust they yearn for. While it may very well be hard to find love anywhere, albums like The Ragpicker’s Dream guarantee the love of those who feel alienated by the fluff that passes for “rock” in an industry becoming more subversive and superficial by the hour.