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Glenn Worf has been making music with Mark Knopfler for more than two decades now, and there’s still nothing better.
Worf, 65, who grew up in Madison’s Orchard Ridge neighborhood and attended Madison Memorial High School, was in a London studio last year playing bass on “Down the Road, Wherever,” Knopfler’s ninth solo album since leaving Dire Straits, where his guitar playing made him a legend.
“One of my favorite things in this world,” Worf told me, “is to go over there and spend a few weeks recording. Mark has this ability to see ahead to what he wants to do and hires the musicians he thinks will help him capture it.”
Knopfler and his band, including Worf, are currently touring North America and this week they’re in the Midwest for five shows, including one at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theatre on Aug. 31.
I caught up with Glenn by phone on his day off before the band played two shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre.
I’d interviewed him for a newspaper column a decade ago and again in October 2015 when he was kind enough to come out to the lobby of the Chicago Theatre to chat with my wife and me prior to a show on Knopfler’s last tour. He grinned telling old Madison stories with just a hint of a southern twang. Glenn and his wife, Susan — also a Memorial grad — raised four kids in Nashville, where the couple still lives.
I remembered him saying in Chicago that it might be the band’s last tour.
“Glad that wasn’t the case,” I said during our recent phone call.
“Me, too,” Glenn said.
Knopfler and Worf met 25 years ago in Nashville. Worf got there in 1979, having first picked up a guitar as a young teen in Madison. He soon switched to bass — “There weren’t any bass players on my end of town,” he says. And he began hanging out at the Nitty Gritty on Frances Street, which decades before it was a birthday bar hosted real-deal blues artists like Buddy Guy and Luther Allison.
Worf was too young to get in. He listened outside with his nose pressed to a window with a view of the stage. Occasionally the bar’s new proprietor, Marsh Shapiro, brought out a soda. When Worf was old enough to come inside, Marsh invited him to play.
“I’m not sure I would have been a musician without him,” Glenn said. “Playing on that little stage, I really thought I had arrived.”
After studying music at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, Worf followed his muse to Nashville, where his talent and work ethic eventually made him a standout studio musician.
He was playing one Monday night at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Café music club when Knopfler stopped in. Knopfler later told the Nashville Tennessean, “I knew with Glenn straightaway, now this here is bass playing.”
Worf played on “Golden Heart,” Knopfler’s 1996 debut solo album, and they’ve been collaborating ever since.
The tours are a commitment. The current run started in Europe in May, but rehearsals began in March. The European leg was 45 shows over three months.
“Long blocks of time,” Worf said. “It does take some emotional and mental reckoning to get yourself ready for the fact you’re not going to be home, you’re not going to see your family. It does take some mental preparation: I’m committed to this; it’s not going to be easy.”
They had three weeks off after the last concert in Italy in July. Worf came home and he and Susan spent some time at the farmhouse they own in Door County. They stopped for a night in Madison to visit Glenn’s dad, Gayle Worf. Glenn’s mom, Mary, died in February.
“My mom was a marvelous lady,” Glenn said. “She was a teacher until the day she died. She had that kind of personality. A curiosity about life. My father has it.”
I’ve seen Gayle around town on occasion and I recall him once telling me about meeting Knopfler and what an unassuming and likable man he is. “He’s like an old shoe,” Gayle said, which struck me as both the most unlikely and most endearing thing ever said about a rock star.
Is this the last tour? I sure hope not. Knopfler is famous for his guitar licks, but I appreciate him as a writer, too. His songs tell stories. I’d hate to try to name a favorite, but if you haven’t heard “Devil Baby,” give it a listen. It’s a sly takedown of Jerry Springer, and who ever deserved taking down more?
The shows bring the songs to the people. The current North American tour is only slightly less ambitious than Europe earlier: 28 dates in five weeks.
“Mark has the attitude,” Glenn said, “that if we’re going to be gone from our families, let’s play. Let’s make some music. That’s what we came out to do.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.