Born in Athens, GA; married in 1969; wife's name, Mary; children: Sarah, Joe. Education: St. Cloud University, Minneapolis, MN, bachelor's degree in English. Military/Wartime Service: Served a brief stint in the U.S. Navy. Addresses: Management--Chuck Morris Entertainment, 1658 York St., Denver, CO 80206-1410. Record company--Private Music, 9014 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90069. Website--Leo Kottke Official Website: http://www.leokottke.com.
Although he once described his voice as the sound of "geese farts on a muggy day," Leo Kottke is best known for his 12-string slide instrumentals and five-finger picking technique. These paved the way for fellow guitarists Michael Hedges and Will Ackerman of the Windham Hill label to combine bluegrass, bottleneck-blues, and classical rhythms into the popular New Age listening music of the 1980s. In 24 years, Kottke has composed scores for film soundtracks, children's shows, and a symphony; and he has also released over 21 LPs, some of which (like Great Big Boy) included his aforementioned craggy baritone, reminiscent of folksinger Tom Waits or the more short-winded radio personality and writer Garrison Keillor.
When his career blossomed with the folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s, Kottke earned the early title of "virtuoso"; Rolling Stone described him as "so good that he didn't need a band." Folk great Pete Seeger, who (along with John Fahey) was one of Kottke's first influences, called the young guitar player "the best twelve-string guitarist [he has] ever heard."
The inventor of such titles as "When Shrimps Learn to Whistle" and "Burnt Lips," Kottke is known for his self-deprecating, loopy sense of humor and brilliant stage presence. "What happens in the fretboard appears to mirror the sudden ebbs and flows in his thought process," wrote Billboard's Jim Bessman, of Kottke's concert style. "He actually plays guitar like it's a fishing pole, grinning and grimacing as he verges on losing the catch, then reeling it in just when it looks like its gone for good."
Although he has changed his finger-picking technique over the years and switched to six-string guitar, Kottke's mastery of the instrument has remained consistent. "Leo Kottke is one of those rare artists whose latest album never differs radically from its predecessor, yet he never seems to get stuck in a rut," said Randy Lewis of the Los Angeles Times. "At any given moment you could close your eyes and imagine three guitarists in the place of Kottke," wrote Ian McFarland of Australia's Melbourne Review.
Born in Athens, Georgia, Kottke grew up in Oklahoma and Wyoming, and had a brief stint in the Navy before settling in Minnesota. Kottke received his first guitar as a young boy---a gift from his parents to help him recover from the death of his sister. At the time, he told Rod Harman in a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service article, "I was following my sister in the grave. I had proceeded to get every disease in the book. I was either insane or dying or both, and my parents brought home a toy guitar." He added, "I made up an E chord, and I was cured. I sat up, I looked out the window---I was gone, I was out of bed in about a week, and I had been there for a couple of months. I just knew I wanted to play this thing, and that's all I ever wanted to do after that."
In Wyoming Kottke continued an angst-filled childhood that he wrote about in "Parade," a song from his 1994 release Peculiaroso. "I knew I had to get out of that town because I wasn't headed in the right direction," Kottke wrote in a 1994 Private Music press release.
In the meantime, Kottke taught himself how to play guitar and joined the Navy, where he met people who later inspired his work. These include an odd engineer named "Evil" who drank torpedo fuel (the inspiration for the song "World Made to Order" on Peculiaroso), and blues greats Skip James, Son House, and John Hurt, all of whom he saw in Washington, D.C., right before he shipped out.
According to his press release, Kottke recorded his first album, 12 String Blues, on a small Minneapolis label, and by 1969 had tracked down guitar great John Fahey. With Fahey's help, Kottke released the highly acclaimed 6 and 12 String Guitar on Fahey's Takoma label. Kottke was then signed by Capitol, releasing nine albums between 1970 and 1976, including My Feet Are Smiling, Chewing Pine, and two compilations.
"By 1978, however, something had changed," wrote Charles Young in Rolling Stone. Kottke released Leo Kottke for Chrysalis, as well as the 1978 LP Burnt Lips (including tracks titled "Endless Sleep," "Cool Water," "Frank Forgets," and "Sonora's Death Row"), which Young described as "a series so depressing that they should be heard only when immobilized by Thorazine." His next LP, Balance (1979), featured the equally depressing titles "Losing Everything," "Drowning," and "Whine." However, his next release, 1981's Guitar Music, was more widely received as upbeat and "inspired no thoughts of suicide," according to Young.
The late 1970s morbidity noticed by reviewers and fans may have had its roots in Kottke's physical rather than psychological physiognomy. In the early 1980s, after the release of Time Step on Chrysalis, Kottke suffered a severe right hand and wrist injury that forced him to alter his unique finger-picking style. He began a three-and-a-half-year vacation from recording and cut his ties with Chrysalis. In that time period, he began playing the six-string guitar, learned how to read music, and took classical guitar lessons, creating a new way to play with less hand tension.
During his hiatus Kottke didn't deliberately try to write anything different. "However, I can see a lot of development in my writing. I've grown harmonically, and I've gotten a better grip on rhythm," he told Billboard. After touring and experimenting for three years, Kottke signed with Private Music and released the voiceless LP A Shout Towards Noon, produced by jazz bassist Buell Neidlinger, who also played on the album. Mark Hanson of Guitar Player described Kottke's first Private release as "a light-hearted batch of instrumental pieces," in which "he shifted his musical emphasis away from speed and power toward tonal richness and rhythmic intricacy."
Kottke's third LP for Private, My Father's Face, was his first vocal recording after an eight-year hiatus. It was produced by T Bone Burnett and featured appearances by members of Los Lobos and the Tom Waits Band. While the title track is a tribute to aging, Kottke described the single "Jack Gets Up" in Billboard magazine as "a grouchy anthem--about how youthfulness is a curse, until you're old enough to know better." "Jack Gets Up" received quite a bit of radio air play, becoming a minor FM hit.
Besides composing the score for the animated children's special Paul Bunyan, Kottke also created a one-hour PBS special, Home and Away in 1989. In 1990 he performed his creation "Ice Fields," a suite for guitar and orchestra, with composer Steven Paulus and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, proving, as the Los Angeles Times noted, his "uncanny ability to make folk music sound like capital-A art."
Kottke's experiments with vocals continued in Great Big Boy and eventually caught the attention of singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones. "You don't hear people sing with that Midwestern accent," Jones told Musician. "Leo's got a kind of authority that's really intelligent and honest." Jones was so impressed by Great Big Boy that she asked Kottke to play on her next album, Traffic from Paradise, which led to Jones producing Kottke's next album, Peculiaroso, released in 1994. Musician's Fred Schruers, who conducted an interview with both artists in May of 1994, speculated that Jones found Kottke's sound appealing because he was able "to put a flexible spine in the midst of her comfortably meandering song structures."
In the spring of 1994, after he finished recording Peculiaroso, Kottke began touring with the "Guitar Summit," a grouping of jazz master Joe Pass, Flamenco great Paco Pena, and classical guitar virtuoso Pepe Romero. Kottke's 1999 album One Guitar, No Vocals was described by Jimmy Smith in PopMatters as "graceful, grace-filled"; Smith commented, "Kottke forgets how hard his fingers are working and you do too." In 2002 Kottke released Clone, a collaboration with bassist Mike Gordon. Mitch Myers wrote in Down Beat that this union was "a wise move," noting that both their playing and their vocals complement each other, producing "the collective sound that's musically and technically marvelous."
Kottke returned to solo playing on Try and Stop Me in 2004. Described as his "most improvisational studio recording" by Michael Metivier in PopMatters, the album features a mix of original pieces, reworkings of old pieces, and a few cover songs. Only one song is not a solo: "The Banks of Marble," which Kottke performs with Los Lobos. Metivier noted that with this album's broad appeal, as well as his earlier work with Gordon and members of the band Phish, Kottke is likely to "attract new and younger listeners to his craft and vitality."
Kottke has continued his busy performing and recording schedule. In 2004 he performed 75 times, released his 22nd studio album, and began work on another album. He planned to continue his active schedule in 2005, according to his website. He told John Sinkevics in the Grand Rapids Press, "This job will teach you humility. What it hasn't taught me is how to practice and practice. I just want to go out there and play. Your whole day, your whole life, falls away for that. It's why you're there."
by Sarah Messer and Kelly Winters
Leo Kottke's Career
Self-taught guitar player and songwriter. Recorded first album with mentor John Fahey, 1969; released nine albums on Capitol, 1969-75; moved to Chrysalis and released six albums, beginning in 1975; signed with Private Music after a three-year hiatus due to hand injury, 1986; created PBS performance special, Home and Away, 1989; composed soundtrack for animated film Paul Bunyan, Windham Hill, early 1990s; suite "Ice Fields" performed by Fort Wayne Philharmonic, early 1990s; released LPs for Private Music, including Peculiaroso, produced by Rickie Lee Jones, 1994; toured with "Guitar Summit," 1994; released One Guitar, No Vocals, 1999; collaborated with bassist Mike Gordon to produce Clone, 2002; released Try and Stop Me, 2004.
Leo Kottke's Awards
Guitar Player magazine, Hall of Fame; Guitar Player magazine, Reader's Poll Best Folk Guitar Award (five times); Performance magazine, Best Instrumentalist.
- Selected discography
- 12 String Blues Oblivion, 1968.
- 6 and 12 String Guitar Takoma, 1969.
- Mudlark Capitol, 1970.
- Greenhouse Capitol, 1971.
- My Feet Are Smiling Capitol, 1972.
- Ice Water Capitol, 1972.
- Dreams and All That Stuff Capitol, 1973.
- Chewing Pine Capitol, 1974.
- Did You Hear Me? Capitol, 1975.
- Leo Kottke Chrysalis, 1976.
- Burnt Lips Chrysalis, 1978.
- Balance Chrysalis, 1978.
- Voluntary Target Pair Records, 1983.
- Guitar Music Chrysalis, 1985.
- A Shout Towards Noon Private Music, 1986.
- Regards From Chuck Pink Private Music, 1987.
- Best of Leo Kottke Capitol, 1987.
- A Shout Toward Noon Private Music, 1988.
- My Father's Face Private Music, 1989.
- That's What Private Music, 1990.
- Paul Bunyan Windham Hill, 1990.
- Great Big Boy Private Music, 1991.
- Essential Leo Kottke Chrysalis, 1991.
- Peculiaroso Private Music, 1994.
- Time Step Beat Goes On, 1995.
- The Best Beat Goes On, 1995.
- Leo Kottke Live Private Music, 1995.
- Live in Europe Beat Goes On, 1995.
- My Feet Are Smiling One Way Records, 1996.
- Standing in My Shoes Private Music, 1997.
- Hear the Wind Howl Disky, 1997.
- Leo Kottke Anthology Rhino, 1997.
- Regards from Chuck Pink Private Music, 1998.
- One Guitar, No Vocals Private Music, 1999.
- Clone Private Music, 2002.
- Try and Stop Me RCA, 2004.
- Billboard, February 22, 1986; April 15, 1989; August 19, 1989; June 19, 1993.
- Down Beat, March 1, 2003.
- GIG, March 1, 2003, p. 48.
- Grand Rapids Press, July 15, 2004, p. 6.
- Guitar Player, March 1988; January 1991; March 1994; April 2003, p. 41.
- Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 7, 2003, p. K1120.
- Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1994.
- Melbourne Review (Australia), May 31, 1994.
- Musician, May 1994.
- People, June 21, 1993.
- Rolling Stone, June 11, 1981; October 28, 1993; October 8, 2002.
- Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), November 26, 2004, p. 1E.
- Blues on Stage, http://www.mnblues.com/cdreview/2003/leokottke-gordon-clone-jm-html (December 30, 2004).
- Leo Kottke Official Website, http://www.leokottke.com/ (December 30, 2004.
- "Leo Kottke, One Guitar, No Vocals," PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/k/kottkeleo-one.shtml (December 30, 2004).
- "Leo Kottke: Try and Stop Me," PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/k/kottkeleo-tryandstop.shtml (December 30, 2004).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Private Music press materials, 1994.