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Neck and Neck caters to fans of Atkins, not Knopfler

NECK AND NECK

Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler.

CBS Records.

By CHRIS WANJEK

NECK AND NECK is a decent country album -- and this is great considering the current state of country music. But the fact that the album is only above average is also shameful, considering it was made by

two legendary guitarists: Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler.

The album starts off fast with dual guitars running through "Poor Boy Blues." Unfortunately, this song doesn't set a standard for the rest of the album. It slows down immediately, only to perk up on two more songs. The slower songs, including five instrumentals, are nice but boring in the long run.

"I'll See You in My Dreams Tonight" is the best of these instrumentals, but even this song leaves Knopfler unchallenged. The best song on the album is the only new song -- Knopfler's "The Next Time I'm in Town." This is Knopfler's only worthy contribution to the album.

I really don't understand Knopfler's role on the album. His occasional solos are sparse at best. And his rhythm guitar is uneventful. Anyone could have played his part. Hopefully this isn't the direction

that Knopfler is going -- mellow country twang.

It's obvious that he has a soft spot for country music. Many Dire Straits songs have their roots in country. And his venture last year with The Notting Hillbillies dove even deeper into the Tennessee hills. But these earlier songs, at least, were interesting -- more than just background music. Knopfler wasn't meant to play background music.

Neck and Neck was made more for Chet Atkins fans than Knopfler fans. Atkins is the lead singer and guitarist on most of the songs. And the mellow song selection definitely caters to a middle-age crowd.

"There'll Be Some Changes Made" is proof of this. Atkins adds his own parody lyrics to this country standard and the outcome is truly silly. "I'll start wearing make-up like Jackson and Prince," Atkins sings as he ponders whether he should change his style. "I'll get my money for nothing and my chicks for free."

The song turns into one of those cute, question-answer show tunes with Knopfler responding, "Those groupie girls aren't what they're cracked up to be." Then Atkins: "Well, I had a quiet life here on music row. So, Mark, what you think?" Then Knopfler with the obvious rhyme: "Gee, [pause], I don't know."

Only the 50-year-old refugees from the Crosby/Hope era can appreciate stuff like this.

So if you're a Chet Atkins fan (or, more likely, if your parents are fans) this album won't let you down. It's a nice album, but certainly nothing to brag about. If you're a Mark Knopfler fan, wait for the new Dire Straits album which should be out soon. The only thing you'll miss on Neck and Neck is that original song that closes the album. But I'm sure his upcoming album will have many more songs like

this one.