|Recordings: Ice Water (1974)|
Re-Release Liner Notes by John Tobler
Leo Kottke has released no less than 20 albums since 1968, which is no minor achievement. Nine of his dozen albums released during the 1970s reached the US album chart, another feat which only household names can match, yet Kottke remains a mystery to the general British public, and an enigma to his devoted fans in this country, not least because his European visits have been few and far between in recent times. To describe him as a master guitarist is accurate, but incomplete, as it ignores his distinctive vocal style, which he once self-deprecatingly likened to "geese farts on a muggy day." However, it is his dazzling and unique command of the guitar which has made his name legendary among admirers of fretboard artistry and virtuosity the world over.
Kottke was born in the currently ultra-hip city of Athens, Georgia (home of REM), on September 11, 1945, although his father's job as a hospital administrator kept the family on the move -- Georgia, California, Minnesota, Washington State, Michigan, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington DC. Kottke thinks he was first attracted to the guitar when the family lived in the small town of Cheyenne, Oklahoma, not far from the Texas border. He first became interested in traditional music, bluegrass and country (hillbilly), in Virginia, and was first exposed to the blues through seeing such legendary figures as Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James in Washington DC during the mid-1960s, and a few years later, by which time he was already performing himself, he became hooked when he saw Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Kottke avoided Vietnam by chance -- he had joined the submarine reserve while at high school because, he says, he enjoyed swimming underwater!
On his discharge from the services (due, he says, to hearing loss caused by firing practice), he went to college in Minnesota and also began playing clubs. He made his first album, Circle 'Round the Sun (sometimes referred to as 12 String Blues) on the amazingly obscure (and aptly named) Oblivion label in 1968, and a few months later re-recorded it for the equally small Symposium label. However, when he was urged by a friend to send tapes of his work to legendary guitar guru John Fahey, who eventually commissioned and financed Kottke's first real album, 6- & 12-String Guitar, released in the US on Fahey's own Takoma label (and in Europe on Sonet), his career began in earnest.
For several years, his name and Fahey's were effectively bracketed since both are acknowledged as extraordinary players, and also because Kottke worked for Fahey packing records. Ultimately they were also both managed during much of the 1970s by the same man, Denny Bruce...Through Bruce, Kottke was offered a major recording deal with Capitol Records in 1971. His three previous albums had been solo instrumental efforts, but his first Capitol album, Mudlark, was recorded in Hollywood and many of its tracks feature backing musicians of the calibre of Larry Taylor (from Canned Heat), Paul Lagos (Kaleidoscope) and Roy Estrada (from Captain Beefhear's Magic Band/Mothers of Invention), while several vocal tracks were also included, such as Kottke's memorable version of "Eight Miles High," the Byrds classic, and a "guest vocal" on "Monkey Lust," a Kottke original, by Kim Fowley, using the alias "Juke Box Phantom." In 1972, came Greenhouse, on which Kottke reverted to playing virtually solo, and in 1974, a live album titled My Feet Are Smiling, recorded at a theatre in Minneapolis, with a sleeve picture of Kottke juggling with oranges. With outside material like Paul Siebel's magnificent "Louise" and Peter Seeger's "Living in the Country," as well as an unforgettable arrangement of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," the live album was widely praised and became his first substantial American hit record.
In 1974 came Ice Water, recorded at Kottke's favourite studio, Sound 80 in Minneapolis, using the top session musicians in the area. This was his first album to peak inside the Top 75 of the US album chart, and included the interestingly titled "Tilt Billings And The Student Prince," which he co-wrote with San Franciscan visionary Ron Nagle (of "Bad Rice" fame), and Tom T. Hall's "Pamela Brown." 1974 also brought Dreams and All That Stuff, which includes a Kottke original whose title, according to its writer, was inspired by a speech delivered by erstwhile Russian big cheese Nikita Kruschev, "When Shrimps Learn to Whistle," and a version of the venerable bluegrass fiddle classic, "Bill Cheatham."
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