The Elusive E: Leo Kottke Is Still Chasing Sounds

Guitar legend Leo Kottke will return to Houston to play The Heights Theater on Thursday, April 7.
Guitar legend Leo Kottke will return to Houston to play The Heights Theater on Thursday, April 7. Photo by Jake Cudek
It can be hard to predict how music will affect the listener; which chord, rhythm or lyric will cause a shutter, a shimmy, a teardrop or a smile. In the experience of guitar god Leo Kottke, he knew right away as a young, bedridden child tooling away on a toy guitar his mother brought him that it was the E chord that would change his life.

“It hit me and I sat up,” he describes vividly. “I didn't choose to sit up, I sat up and I was filled with that E chord and I still am.” Kottke will be returning to Houston for a performance at The Heights Theater on Thursday, April 7.

Kottke was ill throughout his childhood catching “every disease you could think of.” His parents had buried his older sister and he seemed to be following in her footsteps when thankfully after hearing him singing along to the radio, his mother brought him a guitar.

“It touched a spot that was still alive and then it spread. I knew that it had nothing to do with who I was or what I do for a living. It was, this is what I want to do. I want to play this thing, I want to get in there and I still do that. I play every day. I don't really practice but I'm a glutton for the sound of that box.”

His exploration of the six and twelve string guitar has paid off as his long career has allowed him to travel and perform all over the world for more than five decades releasing 21 solo albums since his debut 1969 album 6- and 12- String Guitar on John Fahey’s Tacoma label.

“People talk to me about it,” says Kottke of the overwhelming feeling some get where they just know in their bones that they want to play the guitar. “I did not and do not know. It knows what it wanted to do with me, which sounds really bloated but that's the way it works for me. It’s a gift from somewhere,” describes Kottke.

Kottke’s intricate finger picking style creates rich layers of melodies. Anyone who has ever seen him live knows the profound impact he can make as just one man with a microphone switching between two guitars; no loops, no effects.

Kottke's career trajectory has been anything but conventional with no major marketing or air play but simply expanding his fanbase through word of mouth from his live performances and many studio albums. "Those records they're like time bombs. They sit there for a long time and then somebody finds them or somebody hands it to them. It's a nice thing, it'll come back at ya."  

Along with the desire to play and the ability to tap into some intangible force, comes what Kottke describes as the “privilege of playing for people.

“It really is like joining the sound stream which is very touching when you wake up to that. That's what musicians talk about. That's why they talk about other players. There's this thing we are all swimming in,” he says.

Kottke is known as a soloist but in the past two decades he has branched out by collaborating with Phish bassist Mike Gordon resulting in three fantastic studio albums including the 2020 release, Noon which the duo recorded in New Orleans at Esplanade Studios.

“It’s hard Mike and I. We are both dense players and we both play out front and it's just a kind of a quality. We are best at it when we are face to face in a little room not amplified.”

Listeners would never guess from their warm jams that the first time the two got together to play was not immediately fruitful. Kottke describes how both artists were trying very hard to mesh their sounds and after a few hours of what felt like one could only imagine was a bad date.

Just as Gordon walked away to put away his bass, Kottke laid down a little mindless riff that Gordon reacted to. “That's when we connected and that's also when we quit,” says Kottke.

“We only played that for maybe ten seconds and then we packed up and we knew we could do it. It’s a weird thing, the connection isn't in the music while the music is sort of the symptom of it and it was an interesting day that way,” says Kottke of that original jam session.

Most recently, Kottke has begun another musical friendship with percussionist Dave King who will be joining him for his Austin date. The two have been recording a yet to be released project to capture the energy they have been growing on stage.

“He is a phenomenon and it shouldn't work what we do, a flattop and a full drum kit, but it works beautifully and that's Dave because he can do that,” says Kottke describing the initial panic on faces in the audience when they see King’s drum kit and how these same faces later transform to relief as they hear the result of the two men playing together.

“The way the guitar usually occupies its place is as a horn. You're hearing horn lines in a guitar because it’s considerate and it can really widen the sound of a band in the spacial sense of the melody but I'm up there playing with all my right hand and I’m not playing horn lines and that's difficult. That’s not the way you fit with other people so to make that work it’s a real challenge for Mike and Dave.”

“What I have to do is listen, which is the last thing I do when I play. I just got an empty head and I'm kind of like writing it and if I listen to them, my playing changes in a way that includes them and that's when things really can get hairy in that twist.”

For a man who spent his youth in isolated illness, moving constantly, hiding in the milkweeds to read books when his parents would force him to go outside and play and practicing guitar by himself, Kottke has always managed to radiate a warmth that draws in listeners.

His compositions are filled with twists and turns to match his on stage storytelling and baritone voice that is as deep as the thoughts expressed, filled with seemingly silly, nuanced stories that perfectly capture the absurdity of the human experience and all of the fibers of life that weave us together.

“It helps me. It’s how I find out what to play next.” says Kottke of his penchant for sprinkling funny stories into his performances as he tunes his guitar.

He remembers exactly when he learned that humor could help pull him out of his head when facing a crowd all alone on stage. He describes playing in his hometown of Minneapolis in 1965 to a crowd of 25 people, who he could not bring himself to look at.

His two gooseneck microphones were not cooperating and he had to continuously pull them back into place throughout the show, a movement which triggered an old memory of being on a friend's farm who offered a then bored, pre-teen Kottke the chance to kill a chicken.

Long story short, the chicken almost won the fight and when Kottke remembered this boyhood event he couldn’t help but laugh. “Before I could be afraid, I looked up and I said, ‘Has anybody here ever killed a chicken?’ and I told them what had happened because I was so tickled to remember it.”

“The reason that I'm willing to take that chance since then is, all of a sudden for the first time playing I knew what to play next and that's why I open my mouth. Sometimes it's an absolute disaster, I don't really know what's going to happen because if I do, I'm going to turn into a comedian and I don't want to be that.”

“Stan Getz said you should play everything with irreverence. That doesn't mean that you don't love the music, it means you don't burden it with the great me or with the idea that you're doing something wonderful. Just stay off of it, let it go. It takes a while to learn that. You don't have to be good, you just have to do what you can.”

"Just stay off of it, let it go. It takes a while to learn that. You don't have to be good, you just have to do what you can.”

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Despite all of the years he has spent reinventing guitar playing and performing on stage inspiring others to pick up the guitar or to simply listen, Kottke is humble beyond belief and not quite embracing of the term legend.

“It helps to have been around for a long time,” he says of his cult status. “Automatically that means something to people. I know that because it worked that way for me early on,” he says, recounting how he met Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia and blues legend Son House who could blow the roof of a joint with just his vocals and a foot stomp.

“You see somebody that's done it for a lifetime and they're still doing it again, it's that humanities thing. They are swimming in that stream and it’s the bloodstream really. They do it until they drop if they can and you can hear it in their stuff.”

Kottke had a friendship with bluegrass legend and fellow finger picker Doc Watson who also enjoyed a long career. Onstage, he frequently tells the story of how the first time the two met and how Watson advised him to sharpen his E.

Flash forward 30 years to Kottke handing his guitar to Watson to play in a dressing room and history repeated itself. “The first thing he did was sharp the low E 30 years later. I literally get hung up now on the E and I wonder, is that him? It’s Doc, he's in there.”

Leo Kottke will perform on Thursday, April 7 at The Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th. Doors at 7 p.m. Proof of negative COVID test required or proof of vaccine. $26-$64.
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Gladys Fuentes is a first generation Houstonian whose obsession with music began with being glued to KLDE oldies on the radio as a young girl. She is a freelance music writer for the Houston Press, contributing articles since early 2017.
Contact: Gladys Fuentes