Kottke, Leo (Contemporary Musicians)
Guitarist, singer, composer
Although he once described his voice as the sound ,of "geese farts on a muggy day," Leo Kottke is best known for his 12-string slide instrumentals and five-finger picking technique, which paved the way for fellow guitarists Michael Hedges and Will Ackerman of the Windham Hill label to combine bluegrass, bottleneck-blues, and classical rhythms into popular New Age listening music of the 1980s. In 24 years, Kottke has composed scores for film soundtracks, children's shows, and a symphony; he has also released over 21 LPs, some of which (like "Great Big Boy") included his aforementioned craggy baritone, reminiscent of folksinger Tom Waits or a more short-winded radio personality and writer Garrison Keillor.
When his career blossomed with the folk-revival of the late 1960s and 1970s, Kottke earned the early title of "virtuoso"; Rolling Stone described him as "so good that he didn't need a band." Folk great Pete Seeger, who (along with John Fahey) was one of Kottke's first influences, called the young guitar player "the best twelve-string guitarist [he has] ever heard."
The inventor of such titles as "When Shrimps Learn to Whistle" and "Burnt Lips," Kottke is known for his selfdeprecating, loopy sense of humor and quirky, yet brilliant, stage presence. "What happens in the fret-board appears to mirror the sudden ebbs and flows in his thought process," wrote Billboard's Jim Bessman of Kottke's concert style. "He actually plays guitar like it's a fishing pole, grinning and grimacing as he verges on losing the catch, then reeling it in just when it looks like its gone for good."
Although he has changed his finger-picking technique over the years and switched to six-string guitar, Kottke's mastery of the instrument has remained consistent. "Leo Kottke is one of those rare artists whose latest album never differs radically from its predecessor, yet he never seems to get stuck in a rut," said Randy Lewis of the Los Angeles Times. "At any given moment you could close your eyes and imagine three guitarists in the place of Kottke," wrote Ian McFarland of the Melbourne Review, describing the speed and complex layering of Kottke's playing in concert. Yet country music eccentric Lyle Lovett, who toured with Kottke in 1989, may have summed up Kottke best when he told Billboard magazine in 1989 that "playing acoustic guitar on stage with Leo Kottke is like pitching to Darryl Strawberry."
Trombone Disaster in Early Years
Like his music, Leo Kottke's past is full of rambling and often fragmented stories that may lead the listener down unexpected paths. Kottke blames his idiosyncratic playing on his childhood training in trombone, which he told Rolling Stone in 1981, "ruined [him] for studying the classics and theory." Born in Athens, Georgia, Kottke grew up in Oklahoma and Wyoming, and had a brief stint in the Navy before settling in Minnesota. Kottke received his first guitar as a young boy gift from his parents to help him recover from the death of his sister.
The abrupt end of Kottke's trombone career was accelerated by a humiliating performance at a state fair in Oklahoma and coincided with the gift of the guitar. "There's an academy form to those things," he told Musician in a 1994 interview. "You play the melody in quarter notes, then it repeats in eighth notes, and then ... in 16th notes, then in 64th, cadenza, and you're done." Supposedly Kottke went on stage and said that he was going to play "Down Home on the Farm" (at the suggestion of his teacher), and the audience burst out laughing. "The judges laughed, and I knew I was in for it.... It was God awful. And that was really it."
Kottke had less luck in Wyoming, continuing an alienated and angst-filled childhood that he wrote about in "Parade," a song from his 1994 release, Peculiaroso.
"I knew I had to get out of that town because I wasn't headed in the right direction. We saw either Roy Rogers or Gene Autry in a parade ... and tried to disturb his horse." Kottke wrote in a 1994 Private Music press release, "We'd walk down to the Capitol building, because somebody had mounted the largest buffalo ever killed in the state of Wyoming on this huge pedestal under the dome, and they'd pointed it directly away from the front door. Existentialism wasn't born in France."
In the meantime, Kottke taught himself how to play guitar and joined the Navy, where he met people who later inspired his workn odd engineer named "Evil" who drank torpedo fuel (the inspiration for the song "World Made to Order," on Peculiaroso) and blues greats Skip James, Son House, and John Hurtll of whom he saw in Washington, D.C., right before he shipped out.
According to his press release, Kottke recorded his first album, 12 String Blues, on a small Minneapolis label and by 1969 had tracked down guitar great John Fahey. With Fahey's help, Kottke released the highly acclaimed 6 and 12 String Guitar on Fahey's Takoma label. Kottke was then signed by Capitol. He released nine albums between 1970 and 1976, including My Feet Are Smiling, Chewing Pine, and two compilations.
Kottke attributes his 1970s popularity solely to the changing cycles of American musical taste: "It's a cyclical thing," he told Billboard in 1986. "The flurry of interest in Europe a few years ago in the acoustic guitar followed by about eight years of the same surge that was occurring here when I was with Takoma and then Capitol."
Got the Blues
"By 1978, however, something had changed," wrote Charles Young in Rolling Stone. Kottke had released Leo Kottke for Chrysalis and the 1978 LP Burnt Lips (including tracks titled "Endless Sleep," "Cool Water," "Frank Forgets," and "Sonora's Death Row"), which Young described as "a series so depressing that they should be heard only when immobilized by Thorazine." His next LP, Balance, released in 1979, featured the equally depressing titles "Losing Everything," "Drowning," and "Whine."
Kottke noted that many of his fans had commented on his music's radical swing into moody blues. "I'd like to deny any autobiographical content but I can't," the musician told Young, illustrating his point with a story about a writer who tried to hang himself, but his necktie broke, and he fell out of the closet laughing hysterically. "I feel better now than I have for twenty years (because) I just don't fight myself anymore," he concluded. His next release, 1981's Guitar Music, was more widely received as upbeat and "inspired no thoughts of suicide," according to Young.
Kottke's interview responses and interplay with audiences often took the form of stories, and although he never consciously set out to write "about" anything in particular, stories invariably attached themselves to his sound. "Strange," a song on Guitar Music, is a song about a man who has to play music and act happy on stage for a town whose children have all just been killed by a collapsing sag heap. "I've played some rough situations," Kottke told Rolling Stone, "but nothing like that."
Because much of Kottke's nonvocal work rambles like a conversation, listeners often create their own narratives, which may not coincide with the artist's vision. In a 1994 interview in Musician, singer Rickie Lee Jonesho produced Peculiarosoescribed the song "Pepe's Hush" as characteristically enforcing Kottke's mystery. "For me that song was about a person about to commit a crime, and he had checked into a motel and was going to get up really early to go commit a crime and the dog kept waking him up. Finally I realized that it was just about [Kottke] sleeping next door to a dog that was barking."
The late 1970s morbidity that reviewers and fans perceived may have had its roots in Kottke's physical rather than psychological physiognomy. In the early 1980s, after the release of Time Step on Chrysalis, Kottke suffered a severe right hand and wrist injury that made him alter his unique finger-picking style. He began a three-and-a-half-year vacation from recording and cut his ties with Chrysalis. In that time period, he began playing the six-string guitar, learned how to read music, and took classical guitar lessons, creating a new way to play with less hand tension.
"I try to avoid that 'dead thumb' steady bass, where the thumb plays on every beat," he related in Guitar Player. "I first heard how to break away from that in Pete Seeger's 'Living in the Country.' He often picked a bass note with his thumb and an eighth-note before the down beat." During his hiatus Kottke didn't deliberately try to write anything different. "However, I can see a lot of development in my writing. I've grown harmonically, and I've gotten a better grip on rhythm," he told Billboard.
After touring and experimenting for three years, Kottke signed with Private Music and released the voiceless LP A Shout Towards Noon, produced by jazz bassist Buell Neidlinger, who also played on the album. Mark Hanson of Guitar Player described Kottke's first Private release as "a light-hearted batch of instrumental pieces" in which "he shifted his musical emphasis away from speed and power toward tonal richness and rhythmic intricacy."
Kottke's third LP for Private, My Father's Faceis first vocal recording after an eight-year hiatusas produced by T Bone Burnett and featured appearances by members of Los Lobos and the Tom Waits Band. While the title track is a tribute to aging, Kottke described the single "Jack Gets Up" in Billboard magazine as "a grouchy anthembout how youthfulness is a curse, until you're old enough to know better." "Jack Gets Up" received quite a bit of radio air-play, becoming a minor FM hit. Hanson described "Jack Gets Up," "My Father's Face," and two songs from his later release That's What as perhaps visions of a new pop-song style of "spoken monologues over a finger-picked vamp."
Besides winning seven Grammy awards and composing the score for the animated children's special Paul Bunyan, Kottke also created a one-hour PBS special, Home and Away. In 1990 he performed his creation "Ice Fields," a suite for guitar and orchestra with composer Steven Paulus and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, proving, as the Los Angeles Times noted, his "uncanny ability to make folk music sound like capital-A art."
Kottke's experiments with vocals continued in Great Big Boy and eventually caught the attention of singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones. "You don't hear people sing with that Midwestern accent," Jones told Musician. "Leo's got a kind of authority that's really intelligent and honest and no-bullshit. I really like hearing his accent and his big booming low voice. I don't know any like it."
Jones was so impressed by Great Big Boy that she asked Kottke to play on her next album, Traffic from Paradise, which led to Jones's producing Kottke's next album, Peculiaroso, released in 1994. Musician's Fred Schruers, who conducted an interview with both artists in May of 1994, speculated that Jones found Kottke's sound appealing because he was able "to put a flexible spine in the midst of her comfortably meandering song structures." During the recording of Traffic from Paradise, Kottke and Jones became great friends. Kottke told Musician, "We wanted to continue the fun. The moment that I always want to mention is when Rickie was on the floor, laughing her head off. And so was I, and I thought, 'God, it would be nice to just keep doing this.'"
Jones was responsible for naming several songs on the album and sang back-up vocals with Syd Straw and Teresa Tudry on "Turning into Randolph Scott (Humid Child)." Yet she described herself otherwise as "the producer who lays on the ground," letting Kottke's own eccentricity seep out. In the label's press release, Kottke described "Peg Leg" as the perfect opening for the album. "The title was changed from Steak Diane, a singer in the '60s who had an album which qualifies with Funkadelics' Maggot Brain as the worst album cover I've ever seen. She was covered with raw meat. I decided on 'Peg Leg' because Rickie had a grandfather in vaudeville named Peg Leg Jones, who was a dancer with one leg."
Along with Jones and his mentor John Fahey, Kottke names nonmusicians like sculptor Louise Nevelson and New Zealand author Janet Frame as influences. "[Frame will] write one absolutely staggering paragraph and then you'll wait for a while for the next absolutely staggering paragraph," Kottke commented in Rolling Stone. "My staggering paragraphs aren't quite enough to see me through the next few dull ones."
Rickie Lee Jones, however, disagreed with Kottke's sentiment. Closing her interview with Musician, she said of Kottke's artistry, "I do feel a kinship with that kind of strange, beautiful painting that is of no consequence, doesn't reveal its intentions. It's just a little painting with words and beautiful melodies." In the spring of 1994, after he finished recording Peculiaroso, Kottke began touring with the "Guitar Summit," a grouping of jazz master Joe Pass, Flamenco great Paco Pena, and classical guitar virtuoso Pepe Romero.
6 and 12 String Guitar, Takoma, 1969.
Mudlark, Capitol, 1970.
Greenhouse, Capitol, 1971.
My Feet Are Smiling, Capitol, 1972.
Ice Water, Capitol, 1972.
Dreams and All That Stuff, Capitol, 1973.
Chewing Pine, Capitol, 1974.
Did You Hear Me?, Capitol, 1975.
Leo Kottke, Chrysalis, 1976.
Burnt Lips, Chrysalis, 1977.
Balance, Chrysalis, 1978.
Guitar Music, Chrysalis, 1981.
A Shout Towards Noon, Private Music, 1986.
Regards From Chuck Pink, Private Music, 1987.
Peculiaroso, Private Music, 1994.
12 String Blues, Oblivion.
Leo Kottke/The Best, Capitol.
Leo Kottke/1971-76, Capitol.
Live in Europe, Chrysalis.
Time Step, Chrysalis.
My Father's Face, Private Music.
That's What, Private Music.
Great Big Boy, Private Music.
Billboard, February 22, 1986; April 15, 1989; August 19, 1989; June 19, 1993.
Guitar Player, March 1988; January 1991; March 1994.
Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1994.
Melbourne Review (Australia), May 31, 1994. Musician, May 1994.
People, June 21, 1993.
Rolling Stone, June 11, 1981; October 28, 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Private Music press materials, 1994.