He does his homework
The propulsive and inventive guitarist Leo Kottke, who plays in Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque this month, first put notes to vinyl in the year of man’s first moon landing, 1969. The record was called Leo Kottke: 6-and 12-String Guitar, and it was released on guitarist John Fahey’s Takoma label. It was Fahey who, several decades ago, established the precedent for music to be performed on a stage by one person with a sixstring guitar and no singing. Kottke expanded the practice slightly by sometimes playing a 12-string and sometimes singing, but his debt to Fahey (who died in 2001) is clear.
“John really did something,” Kottke said in a phone interview from Minneapolis. “I haven’t known really how to characterize it, but to me it was pretty profound. It seems to be all around his point of view and the way he brought his experience to it. There’s a guy who did another kind of homework. He really got into the deep end of what he was playing.”
Fahey was a rare musical innovator. His source materials included players in the Southern folk music genre such as Charley Patton, Blind Blake, and Riley Puckett, but he also found ways to express his lifelong fascinations with trains and railroads, comparative religion, and the natural history of turtles. “It all meets in that music; it just floats through there,” Kottke said. “Like a lot of those really generative moves, John’s music was obscure, and it still is, but its effects have been huge. I’m not sure that any of the solo steel-string players would be here if it weren’t for him. I really miss him. He’s probably the best friend I ever had. I mean, he gave me my whole career.”
Kottke, like Fahey, has a predilection for telling stories— on stage, between songs, and with his evocative music. He was born in Athens, Georgia, and grew up in California, Oklahoma, and other American places. During his career of 40-some years, Kottke has released more than two dozen albums. Among his contributions to other projects is a song for Terrence Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven and music (along with guitarist Duck Baker) for the 1990 recording of Paul Bunyan, featuring JonathanWinters.
His most recent albums under his own name include One Guitar, No Vocals (1999); Try and Stop Me (2004)— except for one song, it’s another set of solo instrumentals; and Sixty Six Steps (2005) with Phish bassist Mike Gordon.
Kottke has been at work on a new disc, but he’s not sure how he’s going to release it. “I quit RCA, and I owed them two more but I just kind of didn’t know— after all this time, I began to see the difference between the first record I made and all the ones after that, and I decided to go back to the way I first did it. The big difference is that I don’t have to meet a schedule. Anyway, I’m more involved right now with doing some homework on the guitar, which I’ve avoided for 30 or 40 years.”
What kind of homework? “Scales,” he replied. “I never bothered. I love the guitar. I’m crazier about it now than ever, but I did this to see what would happen. Also, I got kind of mortified at my ignorance. There’s a line that I’ve heard from a lot of different guys who take the other approach, which is to go into the shed and not come out until they can cut anybody, so maybe you owe it to everybody else you’re listening to to do your homework.”
That was part of his motive to going back to some musical basics. Another angle came with some input from Spanish classical guitarist Pepe Romero. “One issue was about rushing,” Kottke said. “I tend to rush. It’s a common affliction for musicians: you get excited and you speed up. I’ve gotten much better at that, and part of the reason is because of what Pepe did for me. We were touring together and one night, maybe 15 minutes before showtime, Pepe said he wanted to show me something. He said, ‘ Turn out all the lights,’ and I said, ‘I think I’ll leave the dressing room.’
“He said I should just sit down and play a note and listen to it all the way out. So I hit the note and sat there for 20 seconds or so as it faded. Then he said, ‘ Now listen with your feet.’ I did that, and he went through all the body parts, and I started feeling a little embarrassed after a while. I thought this didn’t seem like the Pepe I know.
“After about 10 minutes of that, he said ‘ OK, that’s it,’ and he turned the light on and left. I didn’t understand what that was all about, but then I went onstage and I couldn’t rush. I fell immediately into the pocket. I could feel my body wanting to, you know, get up and go, but I couldn’t do it because of what he showed me. It was like you push over here to get a result over there. It was the biggest surprise.
“So I kind of was hoping something like that would happen if I started playing scales. My playing overall has really improved, and the improvisation has improved. Not that I’m playing more linear stuff, but it gives you a much wider sense of where you are on the fingerboard.”
What will his New Mexico programs consist of? “I’ll play some of the new stuff, although it’s always a little unnerving that it gets out ahead of you on YouTube,” Kottke said. “And I’ll do some of the old shit. It’s just me on a six-string and a 12-string. I am enjoying it more. Boy, some nights I’m really happy with what I’m playing, and there seems to be an uptick in the job offers and ticket sales are staying up.”
Kottke might sing. He once described his voice as akin to “goose farts on a muggy day,” but his vocals, when he offers them, are an appropriate complement to his spacey and beautiful singing strings.
Scaling back: Leo Kottke; AP Photo/Jack Dempsey