Leo Kottke - Biography
By J Poet
Leo Kottke is one of the trio of guitarists discovered by John Fahey’s Takoma Records in the 1960s, the other two being Fahey himself and Robbie Basho. Kottke, however, had has his own unique style, incorporating bluegrass, bottleneck-blues, and classical rhythms into his playing, and using the 12-string guitar, usually played slide guitar style, as his primary instrument. His first nationally distributed album 6 and 12-String Guitar (1971 Takoma) has been a slow, but consistent seller, finally going gold after almost 30 years. Kottke composes songs as well as finger busting instrumental pieces and sings in a mellow baritone, self-described as “the sound of geese farts on a muggy day.” His surrealistic stage patter and oddball sense of humor (song titles include “When Shrimps Learn to Whistle” and “I Yell at Traffic”) could insure him a job as a stand up comic if his music career ever ends. Great Big Boy (1991 Private Music), his only all-vocal album, contains nine tunes that give you a good example of his loopy worldview. Kokkke’s playing almosy came to an end in 1983 when a wrist injury and a bad case of tendonitis brought on by too much playing caused him to slow down and change his technique, but he slowly bounced back. Pete Seeger considers him the best 12-string guitar player ever and since 1990 Taylor Guitars has manufactured a Leo Kottke Signature Model 12-string that remains one of their best selling guitars. 2002 Kottke started a running collaboration with Phish bassist Mike Gordon that produced Clone (2002 Private Music) and Sixty Six Steps (2005 RCA), which introduced his virtuosity to a whole new generation.
Kottke was born in Athens, GA, but grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He played trombone and violin in school, but wasn’t particularly musical. When his was 11, his sister died of a brain tumor. Kottke took to bed, depressed and sick and was literally wasting away when his mother gave him a cheap cowboy guitar. He made up a chord and in two weeks he was up and out of bed, practicing guitar in ever waking moment. He wrote single note melodies almost from the first, ignoring the music he heard on the radio in favor of flamenco and classical guitar. Hearing Earl Scruggs and Pete Seeger play banjo as a teen led him to use banjo picking patterns on the guitar. He started playing in public in high school after he discovered he could get free beer by playing in bars.
He joined the Navy as was stationed in Washington DC before he shipped out. In DC he saw Skip James, Son House, and Mississippi John Hurt which added blues licks to his already eclectic style. After the Navy he played the 1960s folk circuit and developed his picking style. His first albums – 12-String Guitar and Circle Round the Sun - were cheap cassettes on the Oblivion label out of Minneapolis. One of them made its way to John Fahey. He tracked down Kottke, signed him and released 6 and 12-String Guitar (1971 Takoma). It ws also known as The Armadillo album because of its cover art.
Kottke had enough pop music influence in his style to interest the majors. Capital signed him and for the next ten years he toured relentlessly and put out several albums a year including: