Each Mark Knopfler album contains hidden clues about his musical DNA. By the early part of the 21st century, that sometimes subconscious element of his songwriting was leading him ever further from the stadium-sized rock of Dire Straits and back towards the folk and acoustic inclinations of his early years. The result, released on 30 September 2002, was (not counting his extensive film soundtrack work) his third solo album, The Ragpicker’s Dream.
Listen to The Ragpicker’s Dream right now.
The introductory single ‘Why Aye Man,’ which came out two weeks earlier, gave an accurate preview of the album’s broad theme, one to which Knopfler continues to allude. These were songs about itinerant, dignified working-class people and their tenacious determination to survive. The song has remained particularly prominent, serving as the opening number for the Down The Road Wherever Tour in 2019.
‘Why Aye Man’ became the theme for the third series of the TV hit Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and mirrored its theme of Geordie labourers travelling from Tyneside to Germany for work, during the years of the UK’s Thatcher administration. As Knopfler wrote: “We had no way of staying afloat, we had to leave on the ferry boat/Economic refugees, on the run to Germany.” One of the show’s stars, Newcastle-born Jimmy Nail, can be heard shouting the title phrase, which simply means an enthusiastic ‘Yes’ in Newcastle, where Knopfler also grew up.
Elsewhere on the album, the writer-guitarist employed another recurring device, tracing the parallels between journeys to the English and American south, both in social history and in his own career. “Going down from Newcastle to London is going south,” he told me, “and going south in America was the mythical thing. That was always calling to me. So I was interested in imposing some of my own geography onto the music, from a song like ‘Southbound Again’ on the first [Dire Straits] album all the way over to ‘Fare Thee Well Northumberland’ on The Ragpicker’s Dream.”
That song’s feeling of the narrator being compelled to leave their beloved home was palpable: “So drive me down to the central station, I hate to leave my River Tyne, for some damn town that’s godforsaken, goodbye old friend of mine.” There was further specific geography in ‘Hill Farmer’s Blues,’ which made reference to the small County Durham town of Tow Law.
The album was recorded in Nashville and London in the first six months of 2002, and released two years to the week after its much-loved predecessor Sailing To Philadelphia. One of the guest stars on that set, James Taylor, later told this writer that he considered the title song on the new record to be a masterstroke. “Oh, man, that’s one of the most amazing modern songs I know,” he said.
Knopfler shared production duties on The Ragpicker’s Dream with Chuck Ainlay, and the list of players included other such frequent co-workers as Richard Bennett on guitars, Jim Cox on keyboards and Chad Cromwell on drums. Guy Fletcher, his confidant since Dire Straits days, was on board as ever, and Paul Franklin added distinguished pedal steel to three tracks.
Other tracks contained nods to friends and heroes that had motivated Knopfler along the way. One of those, a hero from pre-teen days, was the Shadows’ master guitarist Hank Marvin. “The Shads was the first sound, one of the very first, pre-Beatles, that got me hooked, me and thousands of others of course,” he said. “My first electric guitar had to be red because of Hank’s guitar. Say on a song like ‘You Don’t Know You’re Born,’ it finishes with a playout which is Hank in sound. When I was thinking about what it might need, that sound came to mind because Hank’s sound to me was so powerful as a child.”
An American country music staple also earned a tip of the hat. “I had the great pleasure of meeting Roger Miller shortly before he passed away,” said Knopfler. “He was a very charming man. You got the impression he could have been president of the United States if he’d wanted to be. ‘Quality Shoe’ is my nod to his ‘King Of The Road’ a little bit.”
The album made an instant impression, debuting at No. 4 on Music & Media‘s pan-European Top 100 Albums chart after top ten debuts in at least nine countries around the region. Gold status followed in the UK, Germany and elsewhere, and it was a chart-topping platinum record in Norway.
Knopfler’s plans to take the album, and his expansive catalogue, on the road in 2003 were scuppered by a serious motorcycle accident in London. Nine broken bones left him unable to play the guitar for months, and requiring extensive physiotherapy. But within a year, he was recording his next album, 2004’s Shangri-La.
In a later interview, he said that, whatever the distraction or the inconvenience, he has always been able to compose songs. “I can be easily distracted,” he said. “That’s what the teachers always said about me. But even with that, I still manage to be writing away. So I’m still the ragpicker, in a way.”
The Ragpicker’s Dream can be bought here.