Guitar legend Leo Kottke tells it like it is
Leo Kottke ignited the passion of guitar players and music enthusiasts with his 1969 release, 6- and 12-String Guitar. Never before had such a rich, intricate, textured, slightly otherworldly sound emanated from the hands of one man.
Kottke had taken a step back from the mainstream of three-chord blues and rock songs, and dipped in the wellspring of old-time Americana music. The mid-western Kottke had an ability to merge genres with a lightening quick finger-picking bluegrass style that was distinctly American—imagine Django Reinhardt on Hee Haw seeing the world through a stoned Mark Twain’s eyes.
From opening for The Violent Femmes, to appearing on A Prairie Home Companion, recording with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, and phenomenal work with regional favorite Michael Hedges, Kottke has always been far ahead of the curve. Good Times caught up with Kottke on tour in Arizona, where he shared some quick wisdom from his many years on the road.
What drew you to the 12-String guitar? Do you use picks?
I play with my fingers. No picks. The 12 first
hit me with Pete Seeger’s "Bells of Rhymney.”
That was it.
What are some of your favorite memories of working with Michael Hedges?
They all count. He was once billed 300 bucks for all the vegetable matter he left in some motel—he carried two juicers at the time.
In the late 1980s you opened up at Carnegie Hall for The Violent Femmes—do you find your audience to be a hybrid of rock-and-rollers and those who love instrumental pieces?
I can't define the audience, but they are diverse. Ages, backgrounds, criminal records—a good reflection of the act.
You've worked with director Terrence Malick in the past—do you have any recent/future collaborations with filmmakers?
Nothing on the table. Film can be tough because there are many opinions. Terry and I are close friends. I've spoken to him twice in 30 years: each of us is solitary … in other words.
Is your song, “The Other Day (Near Santa Cruz)” based on somebody you met, or general commentary about hippie chicks?
Just some guy I dreamed up and understand. We share some, but not all of his opinions.
Traveling around the country for decades you probably have a better view of what's happening in America than the nightly news. How has the last year been? Does it seem like people are struggling now more than in the recent past?
I can't judge. Except to say that Fox News is banned in Australia.
Where do you find inspiration? Do you meet people on the road and immediately envision a song?
No, the guitar is enough. I can't stop. It's the “Red Shoes.”
You started out as an artist on a small label. Now, in the 21st Century, smaller labels and the ability to self-promote through the Internet are all the rage. Do you see this as a step-forward or are we throwing out the baby with the bath water?
All of the above, which is usually the way things work. There's no measure. But vinyl still wins.
You seem to have a knack for short, quirky answers.
Believe me, I'm proud of the brevity. It's hard for me to get to the point.
Leo Kottke plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $35. For more information, call 423-8209.
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