A few seconds after Leo Kottke starts playing, you find yourself grooving in a special realm of sound. Behind his bright, propulsive technique, the virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist conveys stories that are unique in today’s musical landscape, and are uniquely American.
Kottke’s language is the product of a half-century of playing. It’s been that long since the release of his pioneering 1969 album, 6- and 12-String Guitar.
Asked how he thinks about his evolution, the 73-year-old musician said, “It’s sorta like I don’t move but the world goes by. The guitar feels the same to me as it did when I first picked one up and invented the E chord. First I learned I didn’t invent anything, and then I decided I’d have to start making stuff up. If I am happy, that’s why.”
Born in Athens, Georgia, Kottke grew up in California, Oklahoma, and a good handful of other states. His musical path led from childhood lessons in violin and trombone to taking up the guitar when he was 11 years old. An ear injury and hearing loss while in the U.S. Naval Reserve led to his discharge from the service, so he then attended college. Short of earning a degree, he dropped out and began a life of hitchhiking around the country and playing the guitar for bread money.
Kottke had already focused on the country-blues music of Mississippi John Hurt when he met the legendary John Fahey, another steel-string guitarist, who had traveled around the South collecting rare blues records. Along the way, Fahey developed a singular songwriting style — and established the precedent of music performed on a stage by one person with a steel-string guitar and no singing. He started his own Takoma Records label and commissioned and released Kottke’s much-praised 1969 album.
In a 2010 interview with Pasatiempo, Kottke called Fahey a “profound” influence, saying, “He really got into the deep end of what he was playing.” He added that it was doubtful that he or any of the other solo steel-string players would be here if it weren’t for Fahey, and said he missed his old friend, who died in 2001.
While Fahey pursued a career that was gleefully nonconformist — and although he grew a dedicated fan base, also depressingly unprofitable — Kottke enjoyed a higher level of commercial success. Part of the reason was that Kottke also sometimes sang while playing guitar, although he famously described his vocal talent as akin to “geese farts on a muggy day.” His audience grew after his Capitol Records debut Mudlark (1971), featuring his blazing fingerpicking technique on nine of his own compositions and others by Fahey, The Byrds, and Johann Sebastian Bach.
On his eighth album, 1975’s Chewing Pine, Kottke added piano, drums, and bass and played songs by Marty Robbins and Procul Harum, as well as eight of his own tunes. With this album, he reached the U.S. Top 50 for the first time, according to AllMusic.com. Kottke and Phish bassist Mike Gordon collaborated on Clone (2002) and Sixty Six Steps (2005), which is Kottke’s most recent disc. But new compositions are in the offing. “Yup, I’m writing, that’s the hook for me,” he told Pasatiempo in early July. “Also, Mike Gordon and I are poking around on a new record. I don’t think either one of us knows what we’re going to do with it, or when we’ll be done with it. Everything about recording is a gray area today.”
Not only have digital music files and YouTube radically altered that universe, making it increasingly more difficult for musicians to make a dollar with a new album, but you rarely hear anything on the radio by Kottke, not to mention Fahey. “There are a few stations that aren’t synonymous with corporations,” Kottke said. “KPIG comes to mind.” (The FM station based in Freedom, California, near Santa Cruz, proudly bears its reputation as independent and off the beaten path.)
“I wouldn’t be here without open formats,” Kottke said. “Radio is important and deserves better treatment.”
In 2010, after a lifetime of playing six- and 12-string guitars, Kottke said he was doing something new: practicing scales. And he told me how the flamenco guitarist Pepe Romero had helped him with a speeding-up problem he had while playing onstage. Apparently, it was a success. “He was magical with rushing, a difficult thing to get hold of,” Kottke said. “He’s a brilliant teacher. Pepe never leaves. He’s one of those people you carry around with you so you can check in to see if you’re doing all right. It’s a bumper sticker approach: What would Pepe do? I’m usually doing half-assed.”
The artist’s self-deprecating comments notwithstanding, Kottke is a brilliant musician. But his chosen territory — which doesn’t exactly fit into either the “folk” or “blues” categories — is still a bit esoteric, even if his playing is totally accessible in concert.
I asked him how this particular musical tradition is going. “I don’t think it’s a tradition,” Kottke responded in an email. “Parlor guitar could be called a tradition, but traditions tend to go away or become parodies of themselves, leaving a few durable tunes. For me, there is guitar played with a plectrum, and there is guitar played with the fingers. After that, it’s just either good or bad.” ◀
▼ Leo Kottke
▼ 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 31
▼ The Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ Tickets $34-$44; 505-988-1234, ticketssantafe.org