The solo album catalogue of Mark Knopfler contains nothing but exquisitely crafted songs that uniquely tie together the roots music of British and American culture. But most Knopfler fans would agree that the former Dire Straits frontman hit a particularly rich seam when he released his second LP in his own name, Sailing To Philadelphia, on 26 September, 2000.
Since then, Mark's rate of productivity has travelled in the opposite direction from that of most long-standing artists. He made six more solo records, in addition to numerous other productions, guest appearances and his ever-extensive touring, in the following 15 years, up to and including last year's typically excellent Tracker.
But in 2000, Sailing To Philadelphia arrived after a gap of four years from Knopfler's official solo debut (not counting film soundtracks), Golden Heart, released in 1996. There was, in the interim, the little matter of an extensive tour behind that first album and two movie scores, for Metroland and Wag The Dog.
Ever open to inspiration from the arts, and especially from literature, he was moved to create the new songs after reading Thomas Pynchon's novel Mason & Dixon, based on the lives of Charles Mason and Jeremian Dixon. They were the English surveyors who created the Mason-Dixon Line , the symbolic boundary between free and slave states before the American Civil War. It still denotes the divide between the Northern and Southern United States.
Knopfler's enterprising casting for the title song had him singing the role of Dixon (“I am a Geordie boy...it was my fate from birth, to make my mark upon the earth”) while James Taylor played “Charlie” Mason (“It seems that I was born to chart the evening sky...they'd cut me out for baking bread, but I had other dreams instead”).
“James had asked if I’d produce him,” revealed Knopfler at the time. “We had a couple of chats and it occurred to me that he would be really ideal to play this part, if you like. With James’ folk background I thought he could play Charlie Mason really well.”
The album was a top five hit all over Europe, reaching No. 1 in Germany, Italy and elsewhere and going gold in the UK, US, Australia and beyond, and platinum in several smaller countries. Among the other dozen songs on it was a cameo by another famous artist that Mark greatly admired, Van Morrison, on 'The Last Laugh.'
“Van has been so much a part of my life, since I was a kid in university,” said Mark of Morrison's appearance. “It’s a thrill to hear him singing a song you’ve written, because of what Van’s music has meant to me over the years.”
Other highlights included 'Silvertown Blues' (featuring his old friends Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford from Squeeze), 'Junkie Doll,' the single 'What It Is' and two particularly fine Knopfler guitar performances, on 'Speedway At Nazareth' and 'Baloney Again.'