When Paul Simon penned the classic opening line "the Mississippi Delta is shining like a National guitar", he captured the essence of his personal journey to Graceland, a brilliant mélange of pop sensibilities and third world rhythms set against the metaphor of America's roots "down the highway through the cradle of the civil war". Months earlier, Mark Knopfler's Dire Straits released another genre bending album, the brilliant Brothers in Arms, with a cover that gleaned with its own shining National resonator guitar (remember those vibrant LP record covers?). Surely, if we measured the physical distance of each artist's journey to the home of the King, Simon would be closer from his boyhood home in Queens New York. But somewhere in Scotland, it was Knopfler who was born and baptized in the cradle of Highway 40.
Knopfler has always woven his own unique blend of rock, boogie, and shuffle. After all, Guitar George was strictly rhythm. But no longer the sultan of swing, Knopfler has recently forgone those indelible rock riffs to follow his more acoustic country instincts. With The Ragpicker's Dream, Knopfler suits those instincts with humble stories of men on the move, symbolizing his own musical journey across the Atlantic. The album opens with "Why Aye Man", a working man's song of nomadic souls keeping their "spirits level high" as they travel from Newcastle to Germany to earn an honest dollar (or deutschmark) laying bricks and mixing concrete. Reminiscent of Dire Straits' "Calling Elvis", Knopfler carries a smooth electric lead line over a hard driving shuffle. And sure enough, by the end of the album, we're not far from the King's home on "Daddy's Gone to Knoxville", where Knopfler swings a country vaudeville rag about yet another honest man on the move in search of decent pay.
Along the way, we find the honky tonk gem "Quality Shoe", Knopfler's tribute to Nashville legend Roger Miller ("King of the Road") and the wonderful unaccompanied folk blues "Marbletown". With his laid-back voice, Knopfler nudges these simple melodies like they have been around for years. At first blush, this makes the album very easy to overlook. Indeed, compared to his prior (and best) solo record, Sailing to Philadelphia, several of these tunes are a bit plain and generally more lightly sketched ideas than complete compositions. But dig a bit deeper. Upon repeated listens, there are plenty of musical nuances to enjoy.
OK, so there are no sizzling guitar solos here. But then again, I bet half of you still haven't picked up Neck and Neck, that masterful album featuring Knopfler and his late friend and mentor Chet Atkins trading their tastiest licks on a variety of country blues and jazz numbers. And sure, there are no lovestruck Romeos on this collection. But in the long run, that will only save us all from another lame genre switching cover by an Indigo Girl. Instead, the charm of this record lay in its wonderful musicianship and warm production. On that front, The Ragpicker's Dream is most akin to Knopfler's wonderful collection of mostly traditional songs with the Notting Hillibillies on Missing Presumed Having a Good Time. Oh yeah, and wouldn't you know it, that album also had a cover with all four band members sporting their own shining National guitars.
(Note that the import pressing of The Ragpicker's Dream includes an outstanding bonus live concert disc. There are great renditions of "Quality Shoe", which really opens up and takes shape with a live band, and the terrific "Sailing to Philadelphia", which stands apart from the studio album cut sans James Taylor's soulful vocal accompaniment. But best of all is a fantastic performance of the epic classic "Brothers in Arms". As always, Knopfler fingers that sorrowfully majestic guitar melody with his trademark humbucker tone, heavy with melancholy. But wait for his solo, as he takes off in the higher registers with a building fury, opening the throttle on his custom Pensa guitar to unleash an inspiring tone.)