BY TOM NETHERLANDS | SPECIAL AT HERALD MAIL
Young Leo Kottke grabbed his guitar and ran, stuck his thumb out, found America.
Hear the master guitarist perform at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee, with tales of his travels and songs from his heart on Friday, January 21. It’s an immersive experience.
“It’s kind of necessary,” Kottke said, over the phone from his home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, of his show’s mix of music and trivia. “There’s something about stepping away from the guitar (for a few minutes) so you know what you want to be when you come back to the guitar.”
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Kottke has earned his place among the world’s top acoustic guitarists in a career that spans nearly 60 years. A self-taught player, Kottke’s education on six- and 12-string guitars began in childhood.
But first came the trombone and the violin.
“I really thought the trombone was me, as much as you really think in 7th grade,” Kottke said. “The piano didn’t work for me. The guitar found me, that’s all I can understand. I am in the instrument. I am a guitarist.
Born in Georgia, Kottke’s family moved often throughout his childhood. While attending school in Virginia, he came across a guitar in a record store.
“My grandmother bought it for me. Her name was Ethel,” he said. “It’s a 12-string Gibson D-45. There was a lot of Ethel in it. It’s an adjustment. My guitar. They made them for about three years. Well, I just got Ethel back, and that’s it.
For a time, Kottke tried college in Missouri. But the guitar and the road were calling, and he went to each one, leather shoes applied to the side of a highway, his thumb in the wind.
“I took off and it was memorable,” Kottke said. “I started in Missouri and ended up in Norfolk, Virginia.”
Backpack on his back, guitar in hand, in search of freedom, he found an America that inspired him and his music.
“I wore a pea coat in Norfolk,” Kottke said. “This guy said, ‘You shouldn’t be wearing a peacoat. It’ll get you beat up. He picked me up because I had a guitar. He took me to this cinder block house, which was his house. He asked me to play guitar.
Kottke tells stories like Woody Guthrie wrote songs. These are images of life sewn from Americana’s quilt.
In the early 1970s, Capitol Records signed Kottke. Albums such as 1971’s “Mudlark” and 1975’s “Chewing Pine” helped establish him on the national music scene.
“They were wonderful,” Kottke said of Capitol Records. “My agent wanted me to change labels. They wanted to keep me. I should have stayed. It was a great label. »
From the late 70s through the 80s, Kottke recorded six critically acclaimed albums for Chrysalis Records. Since then, he has experimented with bold interpretations of jazz, folk and light touches of country music across more than a dozen albums.
Kottke’s latest album, “Noon”, a collaboration with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, was released in 2020.
“They kind of show up,” he said of his albums. “I go with what I have at the time. Some people plan these things, plan them, but I never do that.
Like the youngster who crossed America with his thumb, Kottke’s wanderlust continues in the form of his music. Much of what he does today can be attributed to his love of music and the personality of Mississippi bluesman John Hurt.
“It’s this posture, this position, this quality. I got that from John Hurt and Fred McDowell,” Kottke said. “I saw John Hurt once in Washington, DC”
Yes, another Kottke gem of a story. Who knows? Maybe he’ll tell this one in Bristol.
“His wife was in the front row and he was smiling at her with his two-tooth smile,” Kottke said. “And it could melt a stone.”
Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at email@example.com.