Stereo Review, April 1974

Leo Kottke

by Joel Vance

      To me -- make a little room there, boys -- the twelve-string guitar is the only instrument capable of rivaling the pipe organ in majesty of sound and depth of expression.  There are very few, if any, concert pieces written for it, however, and there is no classical tradition in twelve-string playing because it is almost never used in and of itself -- it is considered an alternate instrument, something to be used for occasional tonal changes in folk music, blues, and pop.  The big, booming, beefy sound of the twelve-string can also be tame to tenderness, as Pete Seeger used to do years ago in his version of the teary old ballad "Juanita," or it can be made to skip like a stone across a lake, as (again) Seeger did with his piece "Living in the Country."  And, of course, there was Leadbelly.

      But Leo Kottke does with the twelve-string what Walt Whitman did with blank verse, Louise Armstrong did with the jazz horn, and Little Richard did with rock singing.  Almost singlehandedly Kottke has given the twelve-string guitar an identity that makes in equal to the piano or organ as an instrument capable of anything.  All six-string guitarists of whatever persuasion, from Julian Bream to Django Reinhardt to Eric Clapton, have to be judged separately from Kottke (who, incidentally, is also an excellent six-string man).

      In many ways Kottke has invented his instrument, and he can  play just about anything on it.  Some of his tunes are just that -- tunes, mixtures of high-stepping country folk runs and superior "Hawaiian-style" slide blues.  Others are pastiches of light, airy jazz with whatever kicky rhythmic variations Kottke feels like throwing in.   Still others, like the delicate "Easter" on his recent album My Feet Are Smiling, are what will perhaps be considered some years hence as the first "classical" pieces written for the twelve-string.  ("Easter" also shows his uncanny ability to exploit harmonics.)  Add to all this his sense of humor, a full and pleasant singing voice, easy ways, a deliberate renunciation of driving ambition, and his age (twenty-eight), and we have something rare:  a master musician who hasn't yet reached his peak and can confidently go on "inventing" his instrument for the next twenty years.

      Kottke was born in Athens, Georgia, and grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma.  He listened to Seeger, Leadbelly, the Kingston Trio, Jimmie Rodgers, jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, Aaron Copland, and operatic arias.  He played trombone for eight years, violin for three, and flute for a month.  In 1969 he was playing guitar at a coffeehouse in Minneapolis and was recorded live for Oblivion Records.  One thousand copies were pressed.  A few years later he re-recorded the material for another small -- but more felicitously named -- label, Symposium.  He next recorded for Takoma, a mail-order label established by master guitarist John Fahey.

      Kottke had established himself in Minneapolis, playing clubs and small concerts, and shuttled between that city and Chicago.  Randy Morrison, a Chicago disc jockey, played Kottke's albums, and Richard Harding, owner of the Quiet Knight, booked him into that club, which has been home to some of the best Midwestern talent (John prince, Steve Goodman) and is the required stop for touring national talent -- such artists as Kris Kristofferson and Joan Baez -- when they play Chicago.  Kottke soon became a power in that part of the Middle West and was noticed by Capitol Records.  He has since cut four albums for them:  Mudlark, Greenhouse, My Feet Are Smiling, and the current Ice Water, which is reviewed elsewhere in this issue.

      He now plays concerts from the Pacific Northwest to the "liberal arts colleges in the Northeast," and (gratifyingly) he has been "asked back to Texas."  Last fall he completed a European tour.  From the record-company point of view he is an ideal performer.  His albums are not expensive to produced since he often records completely alone or with only bass and drums behind him.  He is also a true artist whose records are steady sellers, which makes him, in industry nomenclature, a "catalog" artist -- one who may not sell tons of albums each time out (he may never even have a big hit), but will sell steadily for years and years to an audience that is faithful and growing.  Record labels pray for talent like that.  So do audiences.

      Kottke was in New York recently to appear as the opening act for Frank Zappa.  We met in the afternoon, along with his producer-manager  Denny Bruce and a young lady from Kottke's press office.  His hotel had an adjacent restaurant, and as we picked our way through the Friday lunch crowd to find a table, Kottke said, "I got drunk here last night."  We sat down, and a large Germanic waitress took our orders.  Kottke asked.  "What's good for a hangover?"  The three of us answered, "Another drink."  Kottke ordered brandy.

      As we went through the drinks, we talked about Bob and Ray and soundchecks for Kottke's appearance on Long Island that evening.  After lunch I asked Kottke how he got some his terrific harmonic effects, such as those on "Easter."

      "You strike a harmonic and then you bend the strings behind the nut.  [The nut is the top of the neck of the guitar, where the strings are wound, immediately above the fretboard.] If your calluses are in good shape you can also form a chord behind the nut and slide it up the neck so you get a kind of overdrive on the harmonic.*  It's a gimmick.  I love gimmicks.  I think they're the heart and soul of music.  I haven't been able to write that 'overdrive' into anything yet.  Furry Lewis has a few gimmicks -- he's got a pickup that falls out of his guitar."

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