Acoustic Guitar, November/December 1992

Words and Music:  Leo Kottke's travels with guitar and voice

by Jim Ohlschmidt

Leo on the porch of his home in Minnesota
(photo by Dana Wheelock)
Leo on the porch of his home in Minnesota (photo by Dana Wheelock)
     For years, Leo Kottke has lived the often privileged, sometimes cursed life of a restless concert soloist, a constant traveler with an itinerary of international appearances, recording dates, airline flights, hotel reservations, sound checks, and interviews.  Yet ever night that he walks on-stage, he reaches the goal of these arrangements.  The room fades to black, and his hands touch the wood and  metal of his guitar.  A moment later he is, like so many times before, in that strange yet familiar theater of the mind where his music, words, and thoughts come to life before the eyes and ears of audiences endeared to this decidedly quirky Midwesterner.  For an hour or so, Leo Kottke is home again.

      "The thing that I always think about is this page from Artur Rubinstein's autobiography, the first volume, where he talks about the 'secret current,' which is what the term 'in concert' refers to," Kottke says in his arid, occasionally sluggish baritone.  "You are all in concert.  You're not at a concert.  The music, the performer, the audience -- it's all the same."

      Philosophical references and musings occur frequently in conversations with Kottke, who usually underpins his more serious remarks with a sense of self-deprecating irony or cynicism intended to dispel any notions of grandeur or genius one may attribute to the 47-year-old guitarist.

      "I was asked to play on Procol Harum's record before they re-formed to make The Worm In the Oak," he says about a recording date he declined over a schedule conflict.   "I was supposed to be the worm."

      While Kottke is sometimes the butt of his own jokes on-stage and off, his remarkable track record shows that he takes his work very seriously.  Since 1968 he has recorded 25 albums, most of them on major labels such as Capitol and Chrysalis; he has written and recorded music for major film scores (Days of Heaven, Little Treasure) and television themes ("Doodles," "The Rick and Bob Report"); and he has logged appearances on every live format TV show from "Austin City Limits" to "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert."  Not to mention that he's worked concert stages across much of the world, billed with everyone from Charlie Daniels to Sergio Mendes.  There was a time when he even flew on the Concorde, "back when I was hot," he admits with a trace of relief."

      Recent years have been prolific for Kottke.  Not only has he enjoyed a reasonably successful string of well-crafted albums with Private Music, he has written and performed a work for steel-string guitar and orchestra with Steven Paulus (composer-in-residence for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra), he has recorded music for Showtime's "The Paul Bunyan Story" (narrated by Jonathan Winters), and he's featured briefly as a sideman on Lyle Lovett's disc Joshua Judges Ruth.  Even more visible signs of his endurance are a superb, 60-minute video documentary called Leo Kottke:  Home and Away (aired on PBS), and the Leo Kottke signature model 12-string unveiled last year by Taylor Guitars.  For better or worse, Kottke now belongs to that elite strata of guitarists with their own namesake instruments.  ("They've inlaid my name somewhere discreetly on the fingerboard," he mumbles with a mixture of pride and apology.)  All told, Kottke is one of the most creative and influential acoustic guitarists of the latter 20th century.

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