Musician, September 1987

Acoustic Rebirth

by Josef Woodard

     When John Fahey spawned his Takoma label in the late 60's, his aim was true.  The elliptical sage of the solo acoustic guitar was a square peg with not place in the hole it took to fill the music industry.  So he created his own home.  Takoma embodied the Thoreauean tenets of the then-embryonic finger-style guitar scene -- a small-but-feisty company, the little company that could, on its own humble terms.  The acoustic guitar was as much a part of the post-60s American dream as the electric; every other living room had one, and a Martin D28 is infinitely more conducive to playing by Walden Pond than a Stratocaster.

     Little did Fahey know how the scene he fostered would develop, and that twenty years later the acoustic guitar would enjoy a full flowering that would take it from Walden Pond to Carnegie Hall.  There, fingers would coax pleasant sounds under the Windham Hill banner to the delight of, well, the masses.  It's been a strange gestation period; what began as a cottage industry for a cult following has become a certified phenomenon in the 80s, just when you'd assume technology has rendered such things obsolete.  Who can figure it?

     The market today is rife with goods.  Preston Reed's The Road Less Traveled is a fine example of finger-style, Travis-picking expertise.  Jorma Kaukonen has been on the acoustic scene for years, with Hot Tuna and on his solo LPs on the Relix label.  ECM has done its share, even before the current gold rush;  Pat Metheney's New Chatauqua, Billy Connors' Swimming With a Hole in My Head and Bill Frisell's import dark horse In Line belong in any serious acoustiphile's collection.  So do records by George Cromarty, Pierre Bensusan, Stefan Grossman, John Renbourn, and Bert Jansch.  The acoustic guitar archive, once sparse and the stuff of specialists, has truly become a viable entity.

     A sort of mutual admiration society seems to exist among the figures in the acoustic revolution.  Just as Leo Kottke went to Fahey in a sort of pilgrimage almost two decade ago, young Floridian guitarist Richard Gilewitz sat at Kottke's feet, swapping licks and jokes.  Gilewitz' album of guitar solos, Somewhere In Between includes tunes by Jorma Kaukonen, Fahey, and Kottke.  Kottke remembers that Gilewitz traveled great distances to watch him concertize, and the elder guitarist repaid the honor by recording the haunting and luscious "Echoing Gilewitz" on his Private Music album, A Shout Towards Noon.  The success of that record (produced by fellow acoustic-minded weirdo, bassist Buell Nedlinger) is another shot in the arm of Kottke's long career.  How does it feel jumping on the bandwagon for which he built the chassis?  "It's only helped me, that's for sure.  I never thought that instrumental music of any kind would ever get a place in the market.  It's always been so tough for record companies to sell it, and especially to get them to promote it.  So, I'm happy to see it."

     Of the deans of the steel string school, Kottke has had the most resilient gig.  Young players still seek him.  "Michael Hedges told me about the time, before he was recording, that he came to a show about thirteen years ago.  He was going to come backstage, but a security guy kicked him out.  That's flattering stuff."

     This winter Kottke plans to tour with Hedges: the veteran meets the upstart.  "It seemed like a natural combination."

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