Lit of the pickers
Not everyone comes up with a classic, genre-defining album at age 23. And it’s rare for an album of acoustic guitar instrumentals—at least one that gets racked in record stores in the “folk music” bins—to become a staple of FM radio; most don’t even get noticed outside of a core group of ardent guitar kooks.
Back in 1969, such an album, the second one by Leo Kottke, 6- and 12-String Guitar (aka “the armadillo album” for its linoleum-cut cover design), was released by Takoma Records, a tiny independent label owned by the late John Fahey, himself a major acoustic guitar deity. It wasn’t uncommon that summer to hear tunes from “armadillo,” such as Kottke’s viciously slide-driven “Vaseline Machine Gun,” sandwiched between much more stoned-out, feedback-intensive fare.
Over 30 years later, Kottke is still making records; he’s got 26 albums under his belt, the most recent being last year’s One Guitar, No Vocals for Private Music/Windham Hill/RCA. He’s still growing as an artist, too, a feat that on this particular day he’s crediting to his rediscovery of a certain overlooked genre.
That stuff written by John Phillip Sousa. You know, “Stars and Stripes Forever” and all that.
“I’ve been convinced, for some time, that a lot of what I’m doing sounds like it came from march music,” Kottke’s laconic voice cracks over the phone from Minneapolis, where he resides.
“The way it’s built and so forth reminds me of what I did on trombone,” he adds, referring to another instrument he once attempted to master. “A lot of it was crap, but it did give me an idea of architecture and so forth. I think it’s floating around in most music.
“Although Sousa, himself, was a putz,” he points out.
Of course, Kottke could be spinning yarn, although when you think about it, there is a certain commonality between marches and finger-style guitar tunes. Substitute the guitar’s thumb-plucked bass line for the brass band’s sousaphone-driven oompah, toss in a melodic hook that sticks in your craw, along with the extraneous notes that hold it aloft, and you’ve got a serviceable description of what makes at least some of Kottke’s music tick.
“There’s a really strong hook in any good march,” he says.
Then again, Kottke’s certainly acquired a reputation for what the Irish call “blarney.” Simply put, the man has the gift of the gab. It could be that, early on, when he couldn’t afford the luxury of touring with a bunch of guitars, each tuned to accommodate a specific song’s harmonic demands à la Sonic Youth, Kottke cultivated a silver tongue to mesmerize his audiences so they wouldn’t know he was retuning his guitar between each number.
“No,” he says, not so vehemently disagreeing. “It happened because I, uh, I had two gooseneck microphones, and they kept moving while I was playing,” he explains. “I had been performing for about three years, but I literally couldn’t look up—I was scared to death of the audience. I was terrified. And then the mikes started moving that night and, without thinking, I suddenly remembered trying to kill a chicken in Oklahoma when I was a kid.
“And I said, ‘Has anybody here ever tried to kill a chicken?’ And they laughed, and I realized that I’d made some kind of a connection for myself.”
That connection has helped Kottke evolve into one of the more entertaining storytellers on the performing circuit. His humor is dry, but with a homespun twist—not unlike that of Garrison Keillor, on whose radio program he sometimes performs. For a native of Athens, Georgia, Kottke does a pretty good job nailing down that high-prairie whimsy of the northern Midwest.
Oh, and between tall tales, he plays a mean guitar—which you can witness in person at the Crest Theatre this Friday night.