The problem with email interviews is that it can be hard to glean subtle insights into a subject's persona. The difficulty is often magnified when the interviewee is as garrulous in person as Leo Kottke, an acoustic guitar wizard whose wry anecdotes and off-kilter wisdom act as between-song banter during his concerts. But Kottke prefers email, because during those diatribes, he's prone to get lost in a labyrinth of non sequiturs. The rambling man, it seems, simply wears of rambling, and he'd really rather just play his guitar.
"What I might say on stage is just a way to find out what to play next," Kottke says. "I don't know why this happens, but by the time I figure out what I'm talking about, I know what to play. In an interview, all of that is dangerous. So email forces some compression. So do the thumbs!"
Even through digital correspondence, Kottke comes across as redoubtably idiosyncratic and as irreverently self-effacing as he does on stage. His responses meander through truncated anecdotes that float in loose orbit around the core of his answer, much like his fluid, expressive melodies do around his country-blues fingerpicking.
"Everything comes from the same 'well,'" Kottke says. "If you bring up several things from the well, you wind up with several things you can't do. The lucky people, or the cursed, bring up one thing from the well. Actually, I don't think anybody 'brings it up.' It comes and gets them, jumps out and grabs them. Kinda scary. It is scary, once you find out what it's done to you — say, 50 years later."
Leo Kottke came to prominence in the 1970s with the exemplary 6- & 12-String Guitar, an all-instrumental outing that put him easily in the then-nascent guitar style dubbed American primitivism. Led by great pickers like the late John Fahey, the American primitive guitarists transformed the steel-string folk guitar into a respected solo-concert instrument by digging deep into its heritage of fingerpicking, open tunings, and slide technique, but by also developing a rich complexity and harmonic maturity built on dissonance and open-string drones. Each player formulated a cultivated voice out of an idiosyncratic vernacular, culling from personal influences and circumstances.
For instance, Kottke's biggest direct influences were Pete Seeger, John Hammond, and Jimmy Giuffre. "But Fahey gave me my whole adult life when he asked me to make a record," Kottke says. "And, although he was never explicit about it — and he hated Pete Seeger for this reason — John played for the imagination, with a capital I."
According to Kottke, Fahey accused Seeger of saddling his music with politics. "I agree with John about the imagination, but when Pete plays, I don't hear politics, never did." Kottke references Seeger's "Coal Creek March" and says, "The rhythms in that thing are still messing with me."
Kottke's powerful technique, marked by propulsive fingerpicking, combined with his prolific output and extensive touring schedule, made him a prodigious talent during the 1970s. But his playing style also resulted in a lingering pain in his hands that began to hamper his playing in the middle of the 1980s, and almost derailed his career when midway through a solo concert, his right arm and fingers froze.
"I knew if I stopped that, it'd never start again," Kottke says. "And it was an easy decision to make, because I can't do anything else." After three years of sleepless nights, it finally healed.
In order to keep playing, Kottke had to reinvent his technique to alleviate his tendinitis. He ditched heavy fingerpicks, and instead played in a technique closer to the classical picking style. But his technique shift followed the beginning of his tenure on Private Music, a label associated with New Age wholesaler Windham Hill. The trajectory of his recovery took him far from the American primitive style; he embraced soft pop, New Age, and contemporary folk, far from sacred folk-blues 78s.
He started singing, too, though he once famously described his voice as sounding like "geese farts on a muggy day." But even through the reinvention of his style and technique, Kottke never amended his songwriting approach. If anything, he contends he picks more like his country-blues heroes now than when he used fingerpicks.
"It sounds simple, but the cure was throwing away the fingerpicks," Kottke says. "The change improved my playing beyond what it had been before the tendinitis. And there was little pain at its worst, but my arm and hand would freeze solid. I went from four fingers and a thumb to a stump. Or, it was like throwing a basketball at a mosquito."
Despite the obstacles, Kottke perseveres. His influence doesn't reach as wide as Fahey's, but one listen to the hazy folk-pop of artists like Vetiver, The Fruit Bats, and Beachwood Sparks and it's clear that his woolly combination of primitivism and soft-focus pop has made its own ripples. And his earliest works, especially 6- and 12-String Guitar, presage the current crop of fingerstyle masters like Daniel Bachman and Cian Nugent.
"Most of all, a guitar sounds good if you drop it on the floor," Kottke says. "It's a unique instrument, downright anomalous."
And it's one he says he just can't get enough of.