People

Subscribe

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content
Exclusive
Join our live viewing party of “This is Us” season premiere!

This is Us

Tonight at 9PM ET

Archive

Pick a Peck of Pickers—yet Leo Kottke Is Still the Greatest Folk Guitarist on Earth

Posted on

In pop music, there’s not necessarily a fair shake of the booty. All sorts of artless pickers, kickers and disco jivers hit the Hot 100, and yet, absurdly, the greatest folk guitarist on earth has never had a gold record. That is not to say that Leo Kottke goes unheard. His crystalline instrumentals—executed with a dazzling four-finger picking style on six-and 12-string acoustic guitars—distinguish college bookstore Muzak, weather and traffic reports on radio, and TV sermonettes. One of his most-played works, Leo laughs, was the filler used on ABC’s The Dating Game “while the girl chose which guy she wanted. Hell,” he adds, “when they used one of my cuts on The Newlywed Game, they gave away two Kottke concert tickets as part of a trip to New Orleans. The couple never showed.”

Leo’s not complaining. Or starving. He collects royalties from all that airplay and (save for those two empty seats in New Orleans) fills concert halls and campus auditoriums some 100 nights a year. Also, if at 31 he has suffered nine nongold LPs in a row, there’s an alibi. Most of his own “primitive American” compositions—a synthesis of folk, blues, classical, gospel, ragtime and jazz—are impracticably short (two to five minutes) for FM radio. “Deejays can’t just put on Leo Kottke,” he muses, “and go off and do what they have to do for half an hour. I doubt I’ll ever have a gold album.”

Currently Leo’s immersed in what could be his first work to top the charts: a book elucidating the tips he shares with guitar cultists who throng his dressing room backstage. The book will contain information like the source of the bottlenecks he uses for his ineffable slide technique: “Paul Masson white table wine is my favorite—any year.” Or how he handles calluses. “To keep them hard,” he recommends, “soak in alcohol (that dries the skin) and never wash your left hand.”

Kottke is less glib about the calluses of his childhood. His dad taught school, was a part-time golf pro and an administrator for the VA. Leo, though born in Georgia, spent his early life moving through at least eight states (“Those are the only ones I remember”). The family was seeking special hospitals for his chronically ill younger sister, Susan, who finally died at 11 from a brain tumor. Leo recollects spending winter nights sleeping under Wyoming pine trees as a way “of withdrawing into my own little world.” Finally he retreated into music. He played violin in grade school but gave it up “because they make you play crud.” Later Leo entered and won state competitions on the tuba before discovering banjo and guitar as a teenager in Virginia. (He also developed his bland vocal style, heard on some LP cuts.)

He finished three years at St. Cloud (Minn.) State University before sending off demo tapes to fellow folk-guitar virtuoso John Fahey. “I did some acid in the mid-’60s—that really sizzled me,” he confides. “But I came out all right, maybe even better. I was going crazy anyway.” Eventually Leo settled with wife Mary and their two kids in suburban Minneapolis “because the large corporations put their executives and factories here, and support the arts heavily—and because a chilled wind from the north keeps the air clean.”

Kottke seems to coddle his off-center image. It tickled him to fly to Europe for a five-week tour on the Sunday the hometown Vikings were in the Super Bowl. In the same spirit he observes, “I’m not interested in Napoleon, but I would like to read about one of his army privates watching his toes fall off—a tragicomic angle to life, the theater of the ridiculous. You have to rely on yourself for escape.”