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Working with Chet Atkins
An interview with Mark Knopfler (cont.)

by Tom Redmond

doing "There'll be Some Changes Made" and Chet said something about having learned one lick in bible college and I said, "I'd never trust a saint, Chet," and he shot back immediately in half a second, "I'm only a part time saint!" (laughs) It was just a joy being around him.

Tom: Now of course you are famous for your guitar playing Mark, but you're also an accomplished songwriter. The material you perform are songs you have written yourself. What kind of songwriter are you in your mind? How do you go about writing songs?

Mark: Well songwriting's really not like being a musician; it's a different side. It's something that I just do and I love to do it but it's not the same as being a musician. I'm sure the band would let me get away with murder because I'm the guy who wrote the song, you know. I don't suppose I've had to concentrate so hard on my guitar playing because the guitar to me is really something different. I love the guitar, and it is something that I use to write songs but it's not something that I really try to focus on in songwriting in and of itself.

Video: Mark Knopfler: Romeo and Juliet

Sometimes I will sit down and try and improve a little bit as a guitar player but the songwriting would probably get in the way and the songwriting tends to win with me. It's what I do and of course that tends to be straight ahead kind of stuff. I love it and it keeps me honest.

I've been very, very fortunate. I think that with Dire Straits for instance we were in just a fantastic time for recorded music. It was a fantastic time for live performance as well. That seems to have just gone on for me and I can kind of play pretty much the way I want.

In the Studio

I organize touring exactly the way I want and I don't really feel as though I have to compromise anything. I feel very, very fortunate. I have a fabulous studio and a fabulous band and I've really enjoy my writing, in fact I'm probably writing more than ever before. I just get a massive charge out of being able to come into the studio and do some recording and to be at home and to be looking at the songs.

I don't write songs in the studio, I write songs at home but it doesn't take me a few minutes to get to the studio and I can start to lay them out here. I love the whole thing, I love writing, I love it when I'm laying it out. Guy Fletcher helps with the engineering, and then I love it when the band session happens and everybody's piling in. I like the whole deal. I like touring too. I'm pretty lucky, I love music so, and I seem to be able to keep it separate from the music business which is another thing.

Video: Money for Nothing (w/Eric Clapton)"

Tom: I noticed that you really seemed to be having fun when you were playing with Chet, recently I saw sort of an informal video of you and Chet sitting around playing guitar. When you were not working were you able to jam and have fun with music with your guitars?

Mark: Oh yeah. If we were spending a day in Chet's office or something, just hanging out, we would play a lot. Chet was so in love with the whole thing, not just really highly technical and complex music but very simple things. That was something we also had in common. Chet could play and sing the song "Kentucky" which has got just two chords. He could enjoy playing it all day. In fact we did that that one day, just singing and playing it out on his porch.

"For Mark, a great friend and musician"
On the record that we made we did a song called "Just One Time" and I remember Chet saying, "It's amazing what you can do with two chords." It was a Don Gibson song. Don Gibson was a friend of his, they'd done a lot of work together which Chet produced such as "Oh Lonesome Me" and other songs.

Just hearing Chet talk about those days you would be learning from him. For instance I remember Chet showing me a certain RCA microphone and describing how they got that bass drum thing to happen on the recording. I think that was the first time that a bass drum got amplified I believe, it had a mic in it like that.

I think what a lot of people forget is that for a long, long time Chet was making all kinds of records. He managed to get through a hell of a lot of music, it was unbelievable really. And when you think about all the people he produced it's unreal.

You'd just learn things, just by hanging out with him. Every now and again he'd say something and you'd just pick up a lot.

Tom: A light bulb would go off when he said it.

Mark: Yeah, without realizing it, he'd just make a little point about something and it turned into something much bigger.

Video: Mark and Chet perform at the 1987 Secret Policeman's Ball"

Tom: What was the most rewarding thing of everything that you think you learned from Chet or being around Chet, what was the most rewarding personally for you?

Mark: I think one of the things that gave me so much pleasure working with him was that he was so down home. He was so genuine, he didn't try to be anybody else. He could do so much and he always did it himself. I admire him tremendously for picking his way out of poverty. He picked himself out of real poverty. Going to school without a coat in the cold. I felt proud that he shared all that with me, that he felt like talking about it with me, and I also admire him for his tenacity.

Neck and Neck publicity photo
Behind that down home and humble personality I think he was proud of what he'd achieved and he knew what he could do. As he used to say, "With enough practice and application you can get there," and he certainly did that. He hung in there. I do know he was such a decent guy that he found it a strain when he was being an executive at RCA and I admire the fact that he handled all that stress. Remember, he was diagnosed with cancer in '73. He was handling all that and still going back and playing the guitar and doing a lot of those great, great records. Many of those great recordings that he made at home really.

Tom: I hear a lot of nice stories about Chet that have to do with things other than guitar, sometimes funny stories. What was he like as a person?

Mark: He was great. One funny thing I remember was that one day I was having breakfast with him at a place called the Pancake Pantry. Well this guy got up from breakfast from across the big table where we were sitting and as the guy was walking out Chet sort of casually said to me, "You know, that guy is a real big gospel singer ...a real famous gospel singer." And then he leaned in closer and sort of cupped his hand round the side of his mouth as if he was going to tell me something confidential and then he just said, "Chases every skirt in town."

Tom: Mark, thank you for spending so much time together today.

Mark: It's a great pleasure Tom, all the best.


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