Guitarist and composer Leo Kottke is one of the foremost finger-style guitar players in the world and he has the degree to prove it. In 2008, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts awarded Kottke a doctorate in performance music for redefining the potential of the guitar. “Kottke is an American musical icon who has extended the tradition established by musical greats such as Chet Atkins and Merle Travis and John Fahey,” said Scott Emmons, dean of the school. “Over the past 35 years, no single guitarist has influenced an emerging performance style to the extent that Kottke has influenced finger-style guitar.”
Leo Kottke was born in Georgia, but his family moved around and he was influenced by folk and delta blues music, especially the work of Mississippi John Hurt. As a boy, he played the violin and trombone, but abandoned both to the guitar by the age of 11. In the 1960s, after a stint in the military, Kottke settled in the Twin Cities area and began playing at Minneapolis’ Scholar Coffeehouse, which had been home to Bob Dylan and John Koerner. His debut album, 12 String Blues, was recorded on a Viking quarter-inch tape recorder.
After sending tapes to John Fahey, Kottke was signed to Fahey’s Tacoma label and released 6-and-12-String Blues, known as the “Armadillo album.” Fahey’s agent signed Kottke to a contract at Capitol Records, and his first major label record, Mudlark was released in 1971.
Kottke wanted to remain an instrumentalist, but Mudlark and albums like The Greenhouse, My Feet are Smiling and Ice Water positioned him as a singer/songwriter in the golden era of the singer/songwriter. His last album for Capitol, Chewing Pine, put him in the Top 30; his touring had brought him fans throughout the United States and the world. In 2002, Kottke collaborated with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, recording Clone and Sixty-Six Steps. He has toured with flamenco and jazz guitar virtuosos Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola, and his composition, “Ice Fields,” a suite for amplified steel-string guitar and chamber orchestra, is considered a milestone for guitar concerto.
Throughout his career, Kottke has had to deal with partial hearing loss from an accident and severe tendinitis in his right hand, which almost ended his career. He maintained a relationship with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and its unique guitar program, the only one in the world at which a student may choose to specialize in finger-style, jazz, classical or flamenco guitar. In 1985, he performed at the first American Finger-Style Festival, held on campus. He has been an advisor and visitor and has spoken to students about “The Realities of a Life Devoted to Music.” “Kottke is a fabulous role model,” says Dean Emmons, “His personal integrity, humor, self-effacing style and uncommon musical talent combine to provide many lessons for our aspiring music students.”
Leo Kottke’s peers have honored him, as well. He has two Grammy nominations, Performance Magazine’s “Best Instrumentalist” award and induction into the Guitar Player Hall of Fame. Perhaps in tribute to his not playing the trombone as an adult, and with tongue in cheek, he was awarded a Certificate of Significant Achievement in Not Playing the Trombone from the University of Texas at Brownsville with Texas Southmost College.
In August 2020, Kottke and Mike Gordon announced a new collaboration, the album, Noon, released that month. It was Kottke’s first studio album since 2005. Kottke had almost given up on recording. In a Rolling Stone interview with Gordon, he said that he had no heart for social media and that it’s always been about playing live. Gordon changed his mind. The album, Jared Smoloff writes, is “full of lilting grooves that go on wild musical tangents - the result of two artists who have dedicated their lives to mastering their instruments as much as they can.”
“When we play, it sounds like three people,” Gordon said. “There’s a bass going on and there’s a melody and there’s an accompaniment, and it’s all built in. As soon as your brain can see the pattern, he buries it. He’s like this iconic American treasure living in his own bubble. He’ll travel the country listening to ‘The Lone Ranger’ series from the 1950s in its entirety.”
Kottke himself has likened his singing voice to “geese farts in a muggy day.” It’s a great thing for all of us that the music is the key and he is the master.