Emmylou Harris is every other contemporary singer’s dream girl, or at least dream duet partner. Ever since she first teamed up with Gram Parsons, she’s been the rock and country co-vocalist of choice, whether it was teaming up with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt for the Trio project in the mid-’80s or making a guest appearance on a Bright Eyes album last year. And just in the last 12 months, she’s toured with Elvis Costello (and appeared with him and Gillian Welch on the Grand Ole Opry), sung backup for Neil Young in his concert movie…and, now, released an album of duets with former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler.
Their newly released collaboration, All the Roadrunning, has been the better part of a decade in the making, though they estimate they only used up about two weeks of studio time during those years. They’ll be spending a lot more quality time together when they hit the American amphitheatre circuit in mid-June. With Harris at home in Nashville and Knopfler still back in the U.K., we resorted to a conference call to reunite the duo for an off-the-record descant.
MARK KNOPFLER Hi, Emmy. You’re as clear as a bell… as usual.
EMMYLOU HARRIS I’m sorry I missed you when you were in town. I didn’t get back from the studio in time. I was singing with Solomon Burke. I sang a George and Tammy duet with him — can you believe that?
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You two have been working together for a while, albeit very sporadically. Some of these tracks go back six or seven years, right?
HARRIS Yeah, the first couple of tracks we did were slated for [Knopfler’s 2000 album] Sailing to Philadelphia. Those were ”Donkeytown” and ”Red Staggerwing,” and I just did a sort of traditional overdub. And I suppose Mark, in listening back to them, felt there might be the seeds of a whole project, so he kept them off the record with the idea of maybe trying some more things at a later time.
KNOPFLER ”Red Staggerwing” was sort of one of those banter songs. Emmy calls them ”June/Johnny songs.” So it was a natural choice to think of Emmy for that. But as soon as I heard her, I knew it wasn’t quite this Sailing to Philadelphia vibe, it was something else. Because as soon as Emmy sings something, it’s got a very strong, very individual flavor.
HARRIS And so when he was over here working on [2002’s] ”Rag Picker’s Dream,” we cut ”This Is Us” and ”All the Roadrunning.” And then I guess it really established itself as a project to be finished at a later time. So really I don’t know how much time passed. You’d think after all these interviews we’d have our chronology down.
KNOPFLER I’m terrible. Chronologically speaking, I’m chronic. I always expect somebody else to take care of the calendar.
Well, you’re musicians, so you get a pass on that mundane stuff.
KNOPFLER It’s an abdication of responsibility. Actually, I’d miss my own birthday, given half a chance.
HARRIS Well, I try to do that on purpose. But there’s always people that show up with cake.
KNOPFLER Of course, we had to wait so long for the record to come out. Emmy had Red Dirt Girl to come out and I had a record called Shangri-La. Then the record companies wanted to bring out some so-called best-ofs, for both of us. So we had to wait for four records. I don’t know that the music sits so well on the shelf for that long. But I remember thinking at the time, when we were cutting it, that it sounded like two grown-ups, and maybe that it was a good time to hear those kinds of voices. In writing, I had been trying to see from a woman’s viewpoint as well as a man’s. Because there’s such an accent on youth at the moment, it just seemed different. And waiting as long as we did from when the record was made, that hadn’t changed. I still felt, Well, there’s been nothing in the interim.
Emmylou, of course you’ve been associated with a lot of collaborative vocal projects. And Mark, though you’d done duets with Van Morrison and a few other people, you’re not quite as used to that. Was there anything about that kind of harmonizing that felt new to you, or that you had to ease into?
KNOPFLER No, I mean, just as soon as Emmy sings, she makes me sound halfway like a singer. Halfway! I think that my singing, to use a generous term, has improved somewhat over the years, because I gave up cigarettes almost 10 years ago now. But I do actually sing a little better than this sort of strangled moan that I used to make.
HARRIS Are we gonna let him get away with this? [Laughs] You know, I just feel like Mark and I both approach singing as telling a story, and we’re not concerned with vocal licks or anything like that. And so it was just a matter of finding the key and getting the groove, and then you’re off and running.
Did you have any models in mind for what you did? Because in terms of full vocal duet albums, it’s hard to think of many. There were George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. You almost need to be named Tammy to pull it off, apparently.
HARRIS It’s definitely a very… I wouldn’t say ancient, but you know, a country tradition. We talk about John and June. People are very aware of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Melba Montgomery — maybe not so much, but still great — and Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, as far as the man and woman. You’ve got the rich tradition of siblings, the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers. But not so much, I suppose, in pop or rock music do you have so many artists that have separate careers coming together and doing a duet record.
EW: Some people might hear ”duet record” and think, Oh, every song is gonna be like ”I Got You Babe.”
HARRIS [Laughs] But that’s a great duet!
Sure, but people have come to expect duet singers to just alternate all the time: okay, each person will take a separate verse and then they’ll come together on the choruses. Whereas the way you did this is unpredictable, from song to song — sometimes one or the other of you is dominant, and you trade off in interesting ways.
KNOPFLER Well, there’s certainly not one kind of harmony. Part of the reason why I think so many people seem to like the record so much is exactly what you’re talking about. They keep saying you never know which way it’s going to turn. Sometimes I’m on the top harmony and sometimes I’m on the bottom bunk.
HARRIS Mark’s a wonderful harmony singer. See, I always think of harmonies as just alternate melodies — whatever just kind of glides on top or below the melody line. And we never really had to sit down and say ”Oh, do that note or that note.”
In terms of collaborative projects, I’m interested in how you approach sharing the spotlight. Of course you love that feeling that comes from locking in with other people, but with most musicians, ego kicks in at some point and stars really want to have the spotlight all to themselves. And, Emmy, you do solo tours, but you’ll also go out as a featured guest on an Elvis Costello tour, and that sort of thing. There would seem to be a kind of humility in that.
HARRIS Well, that’s really selfish. I mean, gosh, why would you not want to do that? Music is a joyful experience, and what really makes it so enriching is the the bouncing off of people, getting inspired by what other people are doing.
KNOPFLER Absolutely. I mean, I just got a demo from a young songwriter, and he’s doing everything himself, and I was saying to him that if I could offer anything, it would be: Don’t try to do everything yourself. Get people to express themselves with your music, and they’ll give something to it.
Maybe you need to give that advice to Prince. Anyway, Emmylou, you’ve said that when you’re doing your own thing, you can be a perfectionist, but working with somebody like Mark allows you to sort of follow and be Ginger Rogers. Was Mark aware at the time that he was Fred Astaire?
HARRIS No, that was just the idea of when you are singing harmony, someone has to lead, and someone has to follow. And that’s the same thing… I’m not much of a dancer, by the way. In fact, I cannot follow somebody. That’s why I just don’t dance, that way. Dancing, I do only by myself. But I do know how to follow somene’s lead, singing. You’re counting on somebody leading, but it kind of happens simultaneously, too. It’s kind of a hard thing to explain. And that’s why at one point I used that analogy of being the Ginger Rogers to somebody’s Fred Astaire.
KNOPFLER Well, Emmy is, when she’s in this area she’s talking about, a master of the half-millisecond delay between hearing and singing herself. That’s really what it is, I think — having that ability to process the sound that’s coming in and to make a sound virtually simultaneously.
HARRIS But I don’t think about it. [Laughs] Don’t think — whatever you do, don’t think.