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Working With Chet Atkins – An Interview With Mark Knopfler
One of the most well-known rock guitarists of all time, Mark Knopfler rose to fame as the driving force behind British rock band Dire Straits. What many rock fans may not know is Mark’s admiration for Chet Atkins and the projects they were later to work on together as well as the strong friendship they developed. We spoke to Mark in March of 2014.
Tom: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today Mark.
Mark: My pleasure Tom, I would do anything for Chet.
Tom: Before we talk about Chet, can you tell me about some of your early memories of music? What you heard when you were young?
Mark: I suppose the first was the “listen with mother” kind of stuff when I was a toddler. We listened to a radio show called Children’s Favourites every day on BBC. Children’s Favourites was probably my first introduction to music. I would have heard Scottish music too pretty early on.
Tom: Were your parents musical or play an instrument?
Mark: Pretty musical. I mean everybody sang in tune, that’s the main thing, right?
Tom: Do you recall the first time you heard or were aware of Chet’s music?
Mark: I was at a friend’s house and his dad had some records and he had some Chet Atkins stuff but you know we wanted to be rockers and besides, I remember thinking that his guitar playing was from another planet, that I would never be able to play like that. I still think that actually. It just seemed impossible. I didn’t know how it all happened. I really don’t know how he was able to do all that. I listened to things like Caravan and stuff like that but I wouldn’t have had any idea how you’d get to be that good on a guitar.
Tom: I’d like to hear how you would describe your guitar playing and also how you would describe Chet’s playing.
Mark: Well my guitar playing is probably a guitar teacher’s nightmare and Chet’s guitar playing is sublime. So that I would think would be the essential difference.
Chet also used a thumb pick. I had used a thumb pick in the past when playing on my National steel guitar and I’d experimented playing with a thumb pick, but in the end I gave it up. I don’t know whether it was because they kept flying off or whatever it would be but I gave it up and that is another kind of disadvantage in some ways because the definition and the level you achieve with that thumb pick is really something else. I knew from playing with a pick for years that a pick is the biggest amplifier that there is.
Tom: The pick puts a lot of volume to the strings. Most rock guitarists are playing those leads with a flat pick as you mentioned but you’re playing with your thumb as much as your other two fingers. I had read that you started playing that way because you had an encounter with a guitar with a warped neck, is that accurate?
Mark: Oh I had plenty of encounters with them. I had an electric guitar but I couldn’t afford an amplifier so I used to borrow friends’ acoustic guitars and then I ended up playing in folk places long before I got to play in rock places. When a folk singer showed me how to do a clawhammer style, four beats to the bar, that is what essentially got me going with fingerstyle. It was a big step forward. You make your thumb and fingers go where they don’t really want to go. I think that’s what sort of put me on a kind of footing with Chet eventually. Certainly never an equal footing but on a good footing. To me Chet was always the complete player and he had so much that he could do. I did start to get a little bit better and I started taking liberties with the rules of picking. My fingers would start to come up onto the bass strings and my thumb would start to wander down onto the higher strings instead of just staying where it was supposed to. And that’s really how my style started slowly coming about. It’s really from just doing things wrong I guess.
Tom: But doing it your way right?
Tom: I’ve heard Chet say that he thought when he had his thumb and his fingers working that he could create his own little orchestra. That’s what he felt about that bass line being there while he’s playing melody with his other fingers.
Mark: Well that’s right. That’s exactly what it does, it opens up the guitar for you in quite a big way and once you get past the basic folk positions and you start to develop the picking it all advances. I was fortunate to be able to get into a lot of country blues and even ragtime music and so it would be more taxing, but what you’re actually doing is a kind of piano music, it’s like piano music on the guitar sometimes. It wouldn’t necessarily be strict one two three four on the thumb, sometimes you’d be jumping that thumb and imitating the Stride piano style. And you slowly move forward, half the time without realizing that you’re just getting better. I think there’s no substitute basically for just putting a bit of time in. When I told Chet that I used to fall asleep playing the guitar, he said that he did exactly the same thing.
Tom: Just playing until you ran out of gas?
Mark: Yeah. You’d just fall asleep literally. You’d be nodding off over the instrument but your hands would be moving. Your hands could be flying around but you were falling asleep. I think that’s what probably leads to that intimacy that you can have with it.
When Chet called me it kind of floored me in a way. As the years went by I realized that the thing that I believe that he liked was that I was a finger picker. That’s what we had in common, one of the many things that we actually had in common and it just went from there.
Tom: Now the first time that many Chet fans saw you of course was on that TV special in the 80’s called “Chet Atkins and Friends”, which featured you and The Everly Brothers and Michael McDonald and some others. Can you describe a little bit about that project from your perspective and how it came about?
Mark: It was just great to be asked to be on it. I didn’t have any of my own guitars, I do remember that and they were all difficult guitars for me to play. Whenever I have to borrow an instrument like that it always seems hard. But still it was such a thrill. The Everly Brothers had already figured very big in my life. I had a little friend in Newcastle when I was growing up and as kids we would pretend we were the Everly Brothers.
Of course I’m sure that was true of probably thousands of kids during that time. A lot of my first chords were singing Everly Brothers songs so it was a real thrill to be on that show because the Everly’s had recorded one of my songs and I had the chance to play it with them on the stage and that was that was fantastic.
Tom: That was a beautiful rendition of your song “Why Worry”. Did Chet just pick up the phone and call you for that? Was it that simple just like, “Hey I’d like you to come play in this?”
Mark: Yeah, and it was the same with the album “Neck and Neck”. I just picked up the phone one day and he said “Hi Mark, this is Chet Atkins!” and after I’d recovered from that he just said he was making an album and wanted me on it. I was over awed because he was recording with Earl Klugh and George Benson and some seriously beautiful guitar players. I just thought that it would be miles out of my league but anyway I went over there. Paul Yandell was there with Chet meeting me at the airport and I just hit it off with Chet immediately. It was one of those great things that turned into a friendship. We used to go off to breakfast a lot together and hang out a lot. I also had a very good relationship with my publisher in Nashville, it was a chap named David Conrad who was also a friend of Chet’s and so it was just good to have some guys there who were helping to break the ice in a sense. It became quite a regular call for me to be over there in Nashville.
Mark: The record that I produced for Chet, “Neck and Neck” was a home record. We never got a budget to do it in a proper studio so we’d just do it at home.
Tom: The credits on the CD shows the Nashville credits as “CA Workshop”. He had that studio downstairs in his home. Is that where you did that?
Mark: We did a lot of it down there, yeah. We did a lot of it in a little place I had in England, in a little carriage house. Neither would be ideal and the sound wasn’t good in either one. At Chet’s place I’d hear his wife Leona’s fridge cut on while we were recording. The thermostat got on the record in a few places.
Mark: But it was just a joy to do it. There really was some great repartee between us, we were just ad-libbing funny stuff. I think we were 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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