Music News

Don't Dismiss Guitarist Leo Kottke as a Lightweight

Brilliant counterculture magazine Arthur roared back to life this month, dedicating glorious inky newsprint to the psychedelic pop art of Rick Veitch, record reviews by Thurston Moore and Byron Coley, a fevered mediation on Waylon Jennings' Dreaming My Dreams, and much more magical esoterica. The cornerstone of the rebirth issue (Arthur had ceased print publication in 2008) is a conversation between journalist Brian Rademaekers and late guitarist Jack Rose, whose string of perfect records throughout the late '90s and 2000s helped reignite the underground's passion for the kind of American acoustic blues — termed "American Primitive" by Rose's hero John Fahey — that fired up the "freak folk" movement and lead to unlikely scenarios like Devendra Barnhart dating Natalie Portman. Don't let anyone tell you that the 2000s weren't weird, right?

It was Fahey who brought a young guitarist from Athens, Georgia, named Leo Kottke to the record-buying public of the '70s. But in the interview, Rose is quick to draw a line between Fahey's music and that of Kottke. Speaking with Rademaekers, he says, "[Fahey] was definitely against all that Wyndham Hill, Leo Kottke bullshit." Coming from the American indie rock underground, it's easy to see where Rose, who died in 2009, was coming from. While Kottke's earliest works, like 1969's 6- and 12-String Guitar, clung closely to Fahey's intricate, challenging template, his trajectory took him far from the style. Kottke would soon embrace soft pop and contemporary folk (he started singing, too, famously describing his voice as sounding like "geese farts on a muggy day"), and he'd eventually start playing the kind of mood music that would be called "New Age" by folks who had little use for the sacred 78s that inspired Fahey and Rose to create mystical pseudonyms like "Blind Joe Death" and "Dr. Ragtime."

But it isn't fair to dismiss Kottke outright. Turn to YouTube for a live version of his fuzzy, transcendent take on his "Vaseline Machine Gun," in which a fresh-faced Kottke prog-rocks his way into the avant-garde, deftly finger-picking over an electric pickup lodged in his guitar's body. Scope him performing a duet of Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalk" with Chet Atkins, the two sliding up and down guitar necks, each note ringing out with exquisite sadness as Garrison Keillor politely gazes at them.

And then there's Kottke's voice. Labels wanted to sell him as a singer-songwriter, though his unique timbre and distinct frogginess made it a tough bargain. But there's a unique, rough-hewn quality to his vocals. Outlaw tales like "Sonora's Death Row" and the ragged "Frank Forgets" easily fit in the middle ground between Warren Zevon and Tom Waits' Asylum years. Kottke had a way with others' songs, working his unique voice around his ever-dancing guitar figures. His take on "Pamela Brown" remains the definitive read of the Tom T. Hall composition. A tale of lost love, opportunity, and fate, Kottke belts the lyrics like a man who knows the score, and his solo acoustic guitar accompaniment creates the feel of a two-stepping country band backing him up, the high slides and the bumping low end painting a backdrop for Kottke's lonesome story.

Kottke's influence isn't as wide as Fahey's, but listening to the hazy folk pop of artists like Vetiver, The Fruit Bats, and Beachwood Sparks, it's clear that his woolly combination of primitivism and soft-focus pop has made its own ripples, too. Recent years have found Kottke collaborating with simpatico artists like Mike Gordon of Phish and Los Lobos, but he's still fond of touring solo, turning up for concert hall gigs like the one he'll perform at the Musical Instrument Museum this week, exhibiting his idiosyncratic blend of folk, pop, blues, country, and probably some of that "Wyndham Hill bullshit."