In a recording and performance career that spans four full decades, Leo Kottke remains an original.
Onstage, he seemingly brings little with him outside of a pair of acoustic guitars — usually six- and 12-string models. But his playing is an assimilation of harmonic, stylistic and improvisational capabilities that merge into music that is as unparalleled as it is indefinable.
He matches such virtuosity with devilishly constructed but wonderfully skewed between-song stories. So one moment you’re taken in by the earthy folkish warmth that he lends to longtime concert favorites like Tom T. Hall’s “Pamela Brown” or his own masterful instrumental suite “Bigger Situation,” and the next you’re doubled over laughing as he reminisces about smuggling baguettes onto submarines while in the Navy so they could be used as filters for torpedo fuel.
“They still let me play,” Kottke said by phone from Seattle. “That’s the amazing thing. I had no idea I would still be doing this. I thought my career would be all over, at the most, in about 10 years.”
When it was suggested that the key to career longevity might be his distinctive blend of instrumental daring and wildly off-center storytelling, Kottke hesitantly agrees.
“That may be part of it. There aren’t many brands like me available to the consumer.”
Lyle Lovett regularly opened concerts for Kottke in the mid-‘80s.
“Even with all his virtuosity, the first thing I noticed about Leo was how intent he was in pushing ahead with his playing,” Lovett said. “Guitarists everywhere were going out and buying 12-strings to try and play like him. But Leo was always looking for the next thing.”
To say that chance had a role in bringing Kottke to the guitar and, more important, to the stylistic innovators that helped him forge a commanding voice on the instrument, is not an understatement. He took up violin at age 5 and moved on to trombone. He settled on the guitar, primarily because “it made me happy.”
“It really hit me hard,” Kottke said. “By the time I was 11, everything took a back seat to the guitar. There was never a real effort to turn all of it into a job. I knew that playing music was something I needed. And when I found the guitar, I finally discovered the instrument I needed. That was enough. It was more than enough. But to make a living playing it? Well, that’s something I still can’t quite get around.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of “6 and 12 String Guitar,” the recording that largely introduced the world to Kottke. Two independent recordings preceded it, but “6 and 12 String Guitar” was released on the Tacoma label, an enterprise run by the guitarist who was a mentoring force for Kottke: John Fahey.
“I had heard a lot of the great Delta players, like (Mississippi) John Hurt and people like (Appalachian banjoists) Frank Proffitt and Obray Ramsey, and even some jazzers like (guitarist) Kenny Burrell. But they were all kind of discrete to me. John put them all together. And he did it at a pancreatic level. It was so organic that there was no self-consciousness whatsoever.
“But the other thing about John was that his whole effect was metaphysical. It was as if music was a metaphor. Usually music is just itself. It kind of overrides and subsumes metaphor. Not with John. He discovered this whole attitude, this whole realm that was out there. He was like Marco Polo.”
Such stylistic innovation fuels Kottke’s music as well. There have been all kinds of exemplary recording moments since “6 and 12 String Guitar,” including the orchestral shadings of 1976’s “Leo Kottke,” the compositional calm of 1986’s “A Shout Toward Noon,” the playful pop experimentation of 1994’s Rickie Lee Jones-produced Peculiaroso and the collaborative fire struck with Phish bassist Mike Gordon on 2005’s “Sixty Six Steps.” When asked whether he has a favorite recording, Kottke politely balked.
“The minute I think I have one, it turns out I actually hate it. Or the opposite happens. I used to be deeply ashamed of a record called ‘Burnt Lips’ (an extraordinary 1978 album of unaccompanied vocal and instrumental tunes). The last time I heard it, I thought, ‘You know, this isn’t so bad.’”
The constant for Kottke, though, remains concert performance. He considers stage work, after 40 years, a privilege. That assertion was instilled long ago, when the guitarist received a glimpse of an artist who had lost such a privilege.
“This was a long time ago. I played this old theater in Miami, a really nice, kind of miniature concert hall. From the time of the sound check until I was leaving the building that night, there was this one guy sitting in a folding chair. As far as I could tell, he was in his 80s. He never said anything. He never stood up. But he was there for the whole night. So I asked, ‘What the hell is that guy doing there?’ I was told he was the first act to ever play that theater. He was a tap dancer, but now he comes to every show and just sits there for the whole thing.
“So, yes, it is a privilege to still play. There is something very humbling in that for me.”