Guitar Extra!, Winter 1991

Leo Kottke:  A Sense of Place

By Doug Caldwell

Cover photo by Robin Visotsky
Cover photo by Robin Visotsky

      For 20-some years, hovering about the guitar world -- mesmerizing and inspiring, but never landing -- there has been the inventive, eclectic virtuosity of Leo Kottke -- an American original.  Reflecting everything from bluegreass to symphonic avant-garde in his very personalized, amalgamated music, Kottke emerged -- originally on 12-string -- at a time when most guitarists were happy to be able to handle "Blackbird"; and he flat-out blew away the boundaries of what might be done on a figerpicked guitar.  With a more contemprary and rhythmically driven approach than his delicate, folksy predecessors, Kottke brought the art form of American fingerstyle guitar to the youth culture of the '70s, and has remained an evolving, revered artisan into the '90s -- some 21 albums later.

      In conversation as well as in his music, Leo Kottke is -- as more musicians should be -- an absolute individual.  With a seemingly ever-fresh "appetite" for his instrument, he has followed a private muse; keenly interested and absorbent, but not committed to any one spot on the musical spectrum; devoted rather to exploring the "place" to which music takes him.  With this demeanor, rather than merely having his own unique style within a genre, Kottke has forged his own unclassifiable genre, in which he now plays more 6-string than 12, and has even added a 6-string electric bass.  

      And his devotion and consistency has paid off. In the past year, besides having released what some call "his must disturbing record to date," Kottke has written and performed a work for guitar and orchestra with Steven Paulus, composer-in-residence for the Atlanta Symphony orchestra; recorded music for Showtime's The Paul Bunyan Story, narrated by Jonathan Winters; taped a show for Japanese TV; approved the final prototype of a 'Leo Kottke' 12-string guitar to be manufactured by Taylor guitars, and continues to leg-out tours from here to Australia.

      Born in Athens, Georgia 45 years ago, the son of a constantly relocating civil servant, Kottke first took up the violin in Cheyenne, somewhere around the age of six -- and hated it.  He hit upon the trombone soon after, played in school dance bands and took it quite seriously for several years, to the point where he was sure he wanted to be a "jazzer" and "live in hotels."  In looking back, though, he concedes, "I basically didn't know what I was doing until I found the guitar," and his most primal musical influence, he thinks-- in     retrospect -- was his mother; not the three piano pieces she could play, but the "Billy Boy"-type nursery rhymes she sang to him as a baby.

      Laced with an earthy, angular wit -- much like his music -- Kottke's mode of conversation is easy and comfortable, yet powered by an organic, philosophical view.

You can trace having been sung to as a baby as having triggered something musical in you?

Sure.  It's like Eudora Welty blames her whole writing career on a series of children's books called My Bookhouse, which I also read as a kid.  You need a jump-start for your imagination -- and if you're sung to, it jump-starts that part of it.  It really does work that way. You want to repeat the experience.  

Did moving around a lot have an effect on you?

Oh yeah.  It had a big effect.  It made the guitar my home.  It still is why I play, I think; I get that sense of place.

After the trombone and the violin, how did the guitar finally come into your life?  

My sister died -- brain tumor. She had it since she was five; this was in Oklahoma, in Muskogee, and I was probably about 12.  And I had decided that I would die, too.  It wasn't a conscious decision on my part, but it's a common thing for kids to do, you know; one sibling dies, and the next one does a year later, just from reaction.  It's stress.  It's a grief reaction that happens to children and adults.  Unless you really get  to howl about your loss, you'll get sick.  And depending on who you are or what you are and how it is, you can just put yourself right in the grave.  And so, I was just getting every disease  I could find. When I look back on it, it was uncanny how good I was at getting sicker and sicker and sicker.  It started with chicken pox, mumps, and measles.  I got them all pretty much, almost at the same time.  Then I just kept get ting sicker.  And I'd been in bed for,  finally, a couple months, and had sort of fallen out of school, and, I think, I  was working on damaging my heart at  the time, 'cause, among other things,  I had mono.  So I was pretty wiped out,  and my mother, again, brought home a guitar one day. It was a toy guitar; it had a cowboy painted on the front and no bracing to speak of, but she'd heard me singing along with the radio and thought that I would sing, you know, with the guitar.  So, then, I made up an E chord on the guitar...and I was out of bed in a week!  I was cured, and that's the truth, you know.  That E chord -- I remember everything about it.

Just a regular E chord?

Yeah.  I made it up.  I just figured out a couple things, and that happened to be what I made up.  And it literally saved my skin, and gave me something to do  for the rest of my life.  It gave me a way to live.  So, I don't think of myself as a guitarist.  I still manage to think of myself as Leo -- but I have a guitar.  And, it kind of horrified my folks, 'cause that's all I did from then on.  I'd sit around with the guitar.  And I didn't sing (laughs).  I was just sitting there and listening to the place that the chord made.  It was just -- it was what I needed.  I couldn't get that anywhere else.  And I didn't even know that it existed.  I didn't know that it was even available to me, and all of a sudden, there it was.  And -- well, I don't want to get too lofty about this, but --

Well, no, I understand what you're saying. You're starting to describe something that music can do to you, and I guess you were just entering the very beginnings of that.

Yeah.  And actually, that moment was not the beginning of it; that moment was it.  From then on, all of the playing you do, and the writing you do, and trying to learn harmony and theory and so forth -- all of that just happens so that you can stretch the experience. But the experience itself happens, in its totality, with that first moment. That's the whole thing.  And you can sustain it longer; you can even play with the experience. You can alter it, go inside it and look around, but the dimensions of the thing and the boundaries of the thing are set at that first moment.  It's like a door or a window, and I don't know that you ever actually get to go through it, but you sure get to look.

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