Mark Knopfler has had a hell of a career, and there seems to be no slowing in releases. From his first album with Dire Straits, through a successful solo career and duet albums, to award-winning film soundtracks, the guitarist from Northumberland has quite the back catalogue. This top ten explores the albums this writer considers ‘Essential’ to the genre and has rated them with this audience and contribution in mind. Mark Knopfler has made more well-received and more popular albums which do not appear on this list; This collection is his most americana, limited to ten.
Number 10: Mark Knopfler ‘Privateering‘ (2012)
It is a testament to the consistent quality of Mark Knopfler’s body of work that this list can begin with a magnificent double album at number ten. ‘Privateering‘ was written during the Summer of 2011, while Knopfler was co-headlining and playing with Bob Dylan on his ‘Never Ending Tour’. The collection of twenty tracks is his seventh solo album and comes three decades into his recording career. The primarily acoustic album offers a wide variety of blues, roadhouse, folk, Celtic, and country styles, with Scottish fiddle legend John McCusker a guest on many of the tracks. Mark Knopfler was born in Glasgow, where he lived for the first seven years of his life. Moving to Blyth in Northumberland, he was inspired by Hank Marvin. This love of blues and a Celtic background blend seamlessly to redefine folk on his terms. The album’s songs bring the classic blue-collar stories up to date with lyrics about long-haul lorry drivers making money on the side and the lonely thoughts of Scotland’s shepherds; a decidedly British twist on americana.
The album’s title reveals Knopfler’s thoughts on the spirit of independence within the music industry “I really get a buzz out of having this little group of people that sallies forth across the world. I enjoy being in command of it, the band, the crew, travelling through this ever-changing landscape and playing in all these different places. You get where you get without any kind of assistance, really, making your own way in the world. There are no government grants to play this music. You’re a privateer. And that’s the way I like it”. Knopfler’s thoughts echo the ‘American Dream’.
Number 9: Dire Straits ‘Communiqué’ (1979)
The sophomore album is the only album not to be represented on his best of ‘Private Investigations: The Best of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler‘. It is overlooked by the pop market and even fans, and perhaps rightly so, but as a fan of americana, it would be foolish to do so. Mixed in Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, it is the last album to feature Knopfler’s brother David and was seen as a damp squib of a follow-up to their first album. It goes to show that expectations are the killer of subjectivity. Mark Knopfler continued to pioneer his Hank Marvin-inspired music and old-country songwriting and remained steadfast. The album starts with the cracking ‘Once Upon a Time in the West‘ and continues to explore the driving country-folk guitar style in ‘Where Do you Think You’re Going‘. The title track is boogie-woogie, honky-tonking, and blues-laden, harking back to his early experiences with his Uncle Freddie’s jazz piano. It showcases some of the most excellent americana guitar playing and songwriting, yet, owing to its lack of marketable singles, it went relatively under the radar. ‘Lady Writer‘ did not make it into the top 50. Pop’s loss was americana’s gain. The album illuminates that Knopfler had a vision, and he stuck to it and continued to write country folk with a genuinely English slant.
Number 8: OST ‘Altamira‘ (2016)
Mark Knopfler’s contribution to film music deserves its own piece. His soundtrack work started with ‘Local Hero‘ in 1983, and film aficionados will know his work from ‘The Princess Bride‘, ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn‘, and ‘Wag the Dog‘, to name a few. ‘Altamira‘ is the ninth soundtrack album by guitarist Mark Knopfler, and he paired with Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie to back the film about the discovery of the famous cave paintings. At this point in his career, he had won an Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award and had an asteroid named after him (28151 Markknopfler!). He was, by any measure, a success. Knopfler loves to write songs, but this wordless soundtrack shows that he also loves storytelling through music. The guitarist is no stranger to Celtic music, and this pairing with Evelyn Glennie meant they could make “music that was not specific to a time“. Produced by long-time friend and collaborator Guy Fletcher, Knopfler plays what he calls “a little parlour guitar” to compliment the film’s story of an amateur archaeologist and his daughter making one of the most important discoveries of all times; this almost certainly echoes Mark Knopflers own feelings of humility. His use of the parlour guitar, one of the oldest types of guitar, highlights Knopfler’s attention to detail and care in his writing. The soundtrack to ‘Altamira‘, despite being set in 19th-century Northern Spain, is an americana classic.
Number 7: Mark Knopfler ‘Tracker‘ (2015)
Almost all of Mark Knopfler’s solo work could be on this list, and whittling them down was an arduous task. ‘Tracker‘ is the eighth solo album, and what makes it stand out is the wealth of featured artists. The collection features Ruth Moody from The Wailin’ Jennys, John McCusker on fiddle, Appalachian banjo player Bruce Molsky, Michael McGoldrick on Irish flute, and Phil Cunningham on accordion. The concept of the album leans into Knopfler’s earlier career in journalism. ‘Tracker‘ is about finding the details and following them. In many ways, it is a retrospective, with Knopfler looking back at the literal and figurative places he has been, with his experience of hindsight. Arguably his most personal work, the songs are broadly based on his own life rather than characters. Knopfler is incredibly well-read, and in these songs, he sings about real people and authors. ‘Beryl’ is about overlooked author Beryl Bainbridge, ‘River Towns‘ is about the American short story writer Breece D.J Pancake, and ‘Basil‘ is a tribute to poet Basil Bunting who was his former boss at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. It was recorded and produced in British Grove Studios, the studio he had built over time with legendary Dave Stewart to be “a monument to past and future technologies”. Sadly, this studio closed out of tribute to Stewart upon his death from Covid last year. Musically, the songs are all played on a lovely old Stratocaster with Jazz light strings which he even uses a slide on. Of the album and the cycle of life, Knopfler said, “you write a song, you record a song, and then you go and play it to people. If you enjoy that whole cycle, then it makes you a pretty lucky guy“. Three years later, he would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Number 6: Dire Straits ‘Brothers in Arms’ (1985)
Written during the Falklands War, after several successful albums and some less-than-successful ones, this album came like a rocket from the tomb. The album showed Mark Knopfler’s utter defiance: once again, the band ignored what was fashionable or likely to succeed and made an album with his 1937 National guitar on the front cover a number-one. Perhaps this album’s success was kismet, something the public needed, either way, it would not have happened if Knopfler had taken a pop route. Ironically though, this album is, very much, the band’s poppiest record. ‘Money for Nothing‘ and ‘Walk of Life‘ are two of their most successful songs, but also, interestingly, outliers in his career stylistically.
Recorded at AIR studios in Montserrat, where Shirley Collins recorded ‘No Roses‘, it came after the realisation that writing and practice do not happen while on tour. Knopfler had changed nearly everyone and everything about the band and recording (new band members, new recording studio), which is risky. It paid off with one of the ‘100 Greatest British Albums Ever’, a Juno, a BRIT award, and a Grammy for ‘Best Sound Engineering’.
‘Brothers in Arms‘ is a rare album where every single song is excellent. Once again, foolishly slated by critics, NME writer Mat Snow criticised Knopfler’s “mawkish self-pity, his lugubriously mannered appropriation of rockin’ americana, his thumpingly crass attempts at wit“. It is almost laughable to say that this work appropriates rockin’ americana when it simply is rockin’ americana. Snow seems uneasy with the idea that americana can originate from this side of the pond. He also accused the album of the “tritest would-be melodies in history, the last word in tranquilising chord changes, the most cloying lonesome playing and ultimate in transparently fake troubador sentiment ever to ooze out of a million-dollar recording studio“. History has proved nothing fake about Knopfler’s troubadour nature. It was an embarrassing error to call what would become some of the most instantly recognisable riffs in British history “tritest would-be melodies“.
Stylistically, it is a masterclass in future and past Knopfler. There is music inspired by jazz, electric guitar, twelve-bar blues, Celtic folk, and some of his finest famous finger-picking. This album is more than essential americana: it is required.
Number 5: Mark Knopfler ‘Ragpicker’s Dream‘ (2002)
Mark Knopfler’s third solo album is a collection of songs written from the point of view of the everyday hero, a ‘kitchen sink drama’ of a record. It could be considered a concept album, but almost all great americana albums tell stories of blue-collar men and their successes. With long-time friend Paul Franklin on pedal steel and bluegrass legend Mike Henderson on harmonica, it is folk even though Knopfler relies on his electric rather than an acoustic guitar. It opens strong, like all his albums, with the song ‘Why Aye Man‘, a paean to his Northeastern roots, a blues shanty set in the docks of Newcastle. This tribute continues with the six-minute epic ‘Fare Thee Well Northumberland‘ and the ballad of the Geordie shepherd ‘Hill Farmer’s Blues‘. The album also contains songs like ‘Coyote‘ and ‘Daddy’s Gone to Knoxville’ that would be at home on a Nashville record, not-so-coincidentally where ‘Ragpicker‘ was recorded. The album came after he had received an OBE and had a dinosaur named for him (Masiakasaurus Knopfleri!) and had nothing to lose but also nothing further to prove. Rolling Stone author Ernesto Lechner said of the album, “It is clear that Knopfler cares about pleasing no one but himself at this point in life. His Zen attitude, ironically, is what makes this unassuming batch of gentle tunes so oddly compelling.“.
Number 4: The Notting Hillbillies ‘Missing… Presumed Having a Good Time’ (1990)
The Notting Hillbillies are a five-piece band, with four guitars and as many vocalists, Mark Knopfler, unusually, becomes ‘just’ one of the band – but what a band! Formed in 1986 of his mates from his pre-Dire Straits pub playing days, the line-up includes Guy Fletcher, who played on Brothers in Arms and would go on to forge a long relationship with Knopfler, manager Ed Bicknell on drums, and Steel Hall of Famer Paul Franklin on pedal steel. It also has Steve Philips on guitar: a man he met as a reporter for The Yorkshire Evening Post and played the pub circuit in Leeds with as The Duolian String Pickers. Yorkshire session guitarist Brendan Croker of Brendan Croker & The Five O’Clock Shadows is one of the many guitarists featuring.
The album came after ‘Brothers in Arms‘, and the project might have been a way to unwind and return to his roots after intensive touring and the trappings of success. Such an act is a testament to the grounded, considered nature of Mark Knopfler; He has never let his talent or success change him. Where others may have moved to LA, he went back to the pubs of London. The album is replete with traditional songs like the imaginatively titled ‘Railroad Worksong‘ and cover songs such as The Delmores’ ‘Blues Stay Away from Me‘, The Louvin’s’ ‘Weapon of Prayer‘ and Charlie Rich’s ‘Feel Like Going Home‘. ‘Missing…Presumed Having a Good Time‘ also has original work from each guitarist, including ‘Your Own Sweet Way‘ by Mark Knopfler. The humourous band name says most of what you need to know; It is a collection of blues and folk from London musicians enjoying making music together which is the essence of americana.
Number 3: Mark Knopfler & Chet Atkins ‘Neck and Neck‘ (1990)
Knopfler grew up listening to Chet and admired him as a guitar player but also as a producer; Chet Atkins admired Knopfler’s self-taught unique style and innovation. The duet and, indeed, friendship arose after the pair gave a concert for Amnesty International in 1987. They desired to make a studio album, but the time constraints of their own projects meant they could ‘only’ record a covers album. On the album, they set aside their usual acoustics and used matching Gibson SJ200s, pairing back to just the men’s styles and skills. While they are both finger pickers, the guitarists differ in background and how they play. Knopfler is left-handed and is faster and more robust with that hand, while Atkins has a stronger picking hand and uses three fingers to pick versus Knopfler’s two.
Produced by Knopfler and recorded both in CA Workshop, Nashville and Hillbilly Heaven, London* in 1990, the cleverly named ‘Neck and Neck‘ contains songs by Paul Kennerley, Don Gibson, Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grapelli, and Merle Travis. It has one song (‘Next Time I’m in Town‘) written by Mark Knopfler. They do a charming parody of ‘There Will be Some Changes Made‘ with funny banter between them.
At the 33rd Annual Grammy Awards in 1991, the track ‘Poor Boy Blues’ won Best Country Vocal Collaboration, while ‘So Soft Your Goodbye’ won ‘Best Country Instrumental Performance’. The album is a showcase and, indeed, an essential americana one!
*I’ve checked, and Hillbilly Heaven studios does not exist, one can only assume this was slang for one of their home studios.
Number 2: Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris ‘All the Roadrunning’ (2006)
Knopfler and Harris first met while appearing on a Chet Atkins television special in 1987. The album was recorded sporadically over seven years, and this work resulted from their long-term friendship. With all but two songs written by Knopfler, the contrast in styles and sounds surprisingly complement rather than grate. The collaboration is up there with some of the great duet albums of all time; George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Johnny Cash and June Carter etc…
The material retains Knopfler’s ‘thinking man’s working man’ songwriting and includes ‘If This Is Goodbye’, a song based on the last telephone calls to loved ones from the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93. Ten of the twelve tracks are written by Knopfler, except ‘Love and Happiness‘ and ‘Belle Starr‘, which are by Emmylou Harris. Two of its tracks, the Cajun-style ‘Red Staggerwing‘ and the acoustic ballad ‘Donkey Town‘, was initially intended to be included in Knopfler’s 2000 solo album ‘Sailing to Philadelphia‘. Knopfler rocks a Les Paul through most of the album, giving it a more country feel, which suits Harris. Stalwart Paul Franklin appears on pedal steel, of course, and bluegrass’ Stuart Duncan plays fiddle.
The album was considered a resounding success on both sides of the Atlantic, with the general consensus being “one of the best albums of both their careers“. They rerecorded it as a live album titled ‘Real Live Roadrunning‘ at the Gibson Amphitheatre in LA during their Summer tour, there was an accompanying DVD which included ninety minutes of live concert footage. The duet album of these two legends is not only essential Knopfler but essential to americana.
Number 1 – Dire Straits ‘Dire Straits’ (1978)
Is it controversial or lazy to say an artist’s first album is their best? Dire Straits’ first album is number one because it is a clear trailblazer. Knopfler had been working as a journalist and then a teacher trying to make music as a side hustle. When finally the band took the plunge and paid for the studio time and were signed, they chose the name Dire Straits because it was make-or-break; they were all broke. What came about is rock history. Arguably the best track one, side two from a debut album, their first single, ‘Sultans of Swing‘ blindsided the British charts. In 1978 punk, post-punk, and new-wave ruled the airwaves; Boney M was the top-selling single, and John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John spent untold weeks at number one with songs from the movie ‘Grease‘. Along comes Knopfler and his blues and blasting everyone out of the water. It’s old school, it’s deep, and he’s not even remotely cool, but here we have an instant classic. The first tour date was June 1978 at the Lafayette Club in Wolverhampton – a sign of just how small they were before it came out. Ken Tucker wrote that the band “plays tight, spare mixtures of rock, folk and country music with a serene spirit and witty irony. It’s almost as if they were aware that their forte has nothing to do with what’s currently happening in the industry but couldn’t care less.”. The album is no one-hit-wonder either, starting with ‘Down to the Waterline‘ which is widely agreed to be among the top ten greatest Knopfler songs, touring the genre with ‘Six Blade Knife‘, ‘Wild West End‘ and ending with ‘Lions‘ and with dizzying amounts of tremolo. ‘Dire Straits’ was produced by Muff Winwood, older brother and Spencer Davis Group bandmate of Steve Winwood. Winwood, who won a lifetime achievement for his A&R career, said, “You find a star, you find a hit record and the rest will do itself.”. Without Winwood’s vision and gamble, Dire Straits would still be in dire straits. Recorded at Basing Street Studios in Notting Hill, where ‘Stairway to Heaven‘ was recorded seven years previously, British americana history was made once again. Mark Knopfler is an essential americana artist: a Sultan of Swing.