Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler – Neck and Neck – Classic Music Review
This is a complete rewrite of a review I published during my first year of blogging when I tried very hard to obey the common wisdom that short posts are the way to go because no one has time to read anymore.
Looking back on those reviews today, I would describe my writing as “utterly vacuous crapola” . . . which also happens to reflect my feelings about most contemporary music criticism. If the purpose of music criticism is to present a point of view that might enlighten, educate or inspire a reader to form a different opinion, then arbitrarily limiting the word count is the dumbest approach imaginable.
Although it took some time to sing “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” my approach now is to ignore word count, make the necessary apologies for my long-windedness and write as many words as demanded by the subject matter. Hence, an empty piece of garbage like the Spice Girls’ debut album earns as few words as possible, while richer pieces of work like Setting Sons or Dig Me Out deserve a more complete analysis.
This probably isn’t the only review I’m going to revisit, but I decided to start with this one because: a.) with all the political tension in the world today I thought it would be nice to listen to something completely apolitical; b.) Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler formed a highly simpatico duo, and; c.) with people all over the globe are feeling pretty grumpy these days with this bitch of a pandemic, I figured we all need something to make us smile—and Neck and Neck is an absolute hoot!
The concept of “feel” in music is usually associated with the style of music in play: this song has a Latin feel; that song has sort of a jazzy feel. In that sense, the most obvious “feel” on Neck and Neck is American Country (with the exception of their cover of the Django Reinhardt-Stephane Grapelli number “Tears”). But there’s another aspect of feel that has nothing to do with style but is much more important—the feel that involves the relationship between the musician and the music (if soloing) or the relationship encompassing the music and multiple musicians. It has nothing to do with “playing the right notes,” but playing the notes in ways that resonate with emotions and spirit.
Since jazz and rock aren’t terribly concerned with the right notes, the contrast is best demonstrated in classical music, where sounding the right notes is more important. When I listen to Herbert von Karajan’s take on Schubert’s No. 9 Symphony (also known as the Great or Great C Major), the musicians play all the right notes but the music sounds cold and dead to me. On the other hand, the same work conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch is a bona fide aesthetic experience that thrills me to the depths of my soul. Somehow Sawallish managed to inspire a rather large group of professional musicians to not only nail the notes but imbue the music with the same passion he felt for the work.
Though the guitar work on Neck and Neck is best-of-class, it’s the feel of the album that is most impressive. Both Atkins and Knopfler had already achieved recognition as guitar masters, so neither had anything to prove to the other. Knopfler grew up listening to Atkins, but Chet wasn’t the type to put on airs and welcomed the opportunity to play with someone as committed to guitar excellence as he was. Though each displayed a signature style, both men were finger-pickers, in itself a distinctive approach to the electric guitar that allows for more precise string muting and the opportunity to pluck strings with a distinctive snap. All of these varying influences—combined with superb song selection and a fabulous supportive cast of music pros who left their egos at the door—merged together to make Neck and Neck an album that . . . well, it just feels damned good to listen to it, from beginning to end.
The festivities kick off with “Poor Boy Blues,” an upbeat country tune based on an old blues number, modified by a British emigré named Paul Kennerly whose primary claim to fame involved producing and marrying Emmylou Harris. The vocal is a duet featuring Chet and country star Vince Gill, both men adopting a tone of shy melancholy reflecting the modesty of a poor country boy asking for the hand of his best girl, knowing his bank account balance is equally modest. The first distinctive guitar sound you hear comes from neither Chet nor Mark but steel guitarist par excellence Paul Franklin, who had done some work with Dire Straits. Our first Chet-Mark duet doesn’t begin until 1:22 when Knopfler starts picking on his Pensa Suhr in the center-left position; Chet responds at about 1:43 in the center-right position (one billion thank yous to Ingo Raven and Jean-François Convert, who sorted out all of the album’s guitar work on Ingo’s Mark Knopfler Guitar Site). As Ingo points out, those positions remain constant throughout the album, so you can easily identify who is playing a particular solo and study the stylistic differences between the two guitarists. The back-and-forth continues throughout the song, delighting the listener with remarkable displays of clean finger-picking (Knopfler also deserves credit for the overdubbed rhythm guitar and strumming). Regular readers know I am prone to bitch about the excessive use and misapplication of reverb in popular music, but I’ve got nothing to bitch about here—the reverb on all three guitars is as clean and clear as a mountain stream, a clarity obviously facilitated by the talent of the guitarists. “Poor Boy Blues” is not only a great opening number but a sort of overture anticipating the good times still to come.
The legendary Don Gibson-Patsy Cline “Sweet Dreams” follows, the opening notes reserved for Floyd Cramer’s lovely piano, which will provide counterpoints and fills throughout the piece. With Paul Franklin supplying the dreamscape through his lovely slides, Mark’s solos emphasize the bluesier aspects of the song while Chet explores the melodic side. The result is a perfectly sweet and respectful cover of a country classic, much sweeter and gentler than Roy Buchanan’s more aggressive but equally superb take on the song.
The album’s good vibes are most apparent in the remake of the frequently-covered jazz classic “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” with Knopfler playing the role of Doubting Thomas to Chet’s desire to transform himself into an ’80s teen idol:
There’ll be a change in the weather and a change in the scene,
I’m gonna start wearin’ leather and change my routine,
I’ll wear dark glasses, maybe a toupee,
I’ll get down and boogie and become risqué.
I’ll start wearin’ makeup, like Jackson and Prince,
You’ll see me riding in my Mercedes-Benz.
Nobody wants you when you just play guitar,
There’ll be some changes made tomorrow; there’ll be some changes made.
Oh, man, I do NOT want to even imagine Chet Atkins in drag. Thankfully, Knopfler responds: “You know, Chet, you’re never going to get to play that rock ‘n’ roll.” “Well, why is that?” Chet queries. “You’re kinda country . . . just a little bit old?” “That hurts!”
Chet then continues with a reference to a famous Dire Straits song: “Want your money for nothing and your chicks for free.” In response Mark suggests that “them groupie girls ain’t what they’re cracked up to be,” but Chet is determined: “Well, I’d really like to find out . . . for myself, don’t you know? I’ve had a kind of quiet life down here on Music Row.” At this point, Mark backs off and allows Chet to keep his fantasy, opening the way for some competitive fun between the two great finger-pickers, seasoned by laughter and playful banter (“I learned this in summer bible school” . . . (Chet to Mark): “Pretty good but you’re no Mark Knopfler” and “Don’t make me look bad now . . . respect for your elders!”) The comedy is superb and the guitar duet even better—“There’ll Be Some Changes Made” is an absolute gas.
The boys tone it down a bit for another Don Gibson classic, “Just One Time.” It’s the perfect song for Mark Knopfler’s very limited vocal range, and with a bit of help from Chet on the harmonies, he gives us a sincere and subtle performance. “So Soft, Your Goodbye,” written by longtime country songsmith Randy Goodrum won the Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance (“Poor Boy Blues” took the complementary vocal award). The arrangement has classical overtones, with fiddler Mark O’Connor tilting his performance towards that more formal approach, and the sweet tones coming from Atkins and Knopfler combine with that mournful fiddle to create a show-stopping moment of melancholy serenity. Absolutely beautiful.
My only complaint regarding Neck and Neck has to do with the placement of “Yakety Axe,” a remodeling of Chet’s 1965 hit featuring a new arrangement and lyrics courtesy of Merle Travis. After “So Soft, Your Goodbye,” there I am feeling all snuggly, cuddly, safe and warm and WHAM! Chet’s sharp-toned picking ejects me from dreamland long before I was ready. I have no problem with the song (the picking is pretty damned hot), but jeez, give me a moment to get out of my comfy little corner of the world, for fuck’s sake!
We return to dreamland courtesy of the sound of acoustic guitar and violin in a cover of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s “Tears.” I’m delighted that they chose this version of the song as opposed to the Django-only rendition, which features some of his most aggressive guitar work; the Grappelli version replicated here is grounded in a slower tempo, allowing the listener to better appreciate the melody and counterpoint coming from both guitar and violin. It’s also nice to hear both men apply their exquisite finger-picking skills to the acoustic guitar, still creating beautiful tones without internal wiring.
“Tahitian Skies” combines acoustic, electric and steel guitar, with Knopfler doubling up on acoustic guitar and electric guitar solos. Mark O’Connor adds a touch of mandolin to yet another dreamy and delightful track. Speaking of dreams, next up is “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a remake of the 1924 hit that spent seven weeks on top of the charts. The highlight here is Knopfler’s amazing arpeggios in his first solo—I’m absolutely convinced the man used all eight fingers and both thumbs to pull it off.
The good times had to end sooner or later, and here they end with the only original contribution on the album, Mark Knopfler’s “The Next Time I’m in Town,” a song about a guy saying good-bye to his long-distance lover as he gets ready to climb into the cab of his big rig or grab a cab to catch the last flight out. Featuring a larger cast than any of the other numbers on the album, it forms a perfect farewell number that gives O’Connor and Franklin a chance to take their bows along with the two leads and Vince Gill to participate in the three-part harmony on the stop-time rendition of the chorus—which also serves as a nice farewell to the listening audience:
Now it’s been something seeing you again
In this time we’ve had to spend
You’ve been so good to be around
I thank you for that special thrill
Keep me going on until
The next time I’m in town
Let me close with a little tip for you: Instead of fretting about Election Day in America, this fucking relentless and oppressive virus and the fact that all life on the planet may be wiped out in oh, fifty years or so . . . put aside a measly 39 minutes of your crummy day to listen to Neck and Neck. Even when things are going to hell and a handbasket, we all have the right to smile every now and then . . . and I can’t think of a better reminder that there is a lot of good in this world of ours than Neck and Neck.