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Leo Kottke quietly emerged from the late-'60s folk revival to become one of today's most respected guitar players. His unique picking style and syncopated rhythmic accompaniment borrow as much from Mississippi country blues and Appalachian folk ballads as they do from jazz and rock. With unmatched technique that confounds guitar enthusiasts but delights audiences, Kottke has released more than twenty albums, focusing mostly on instrumental work. Although tendonitis threatened to end his career in the '80s, Kottke eventually found a suitable technique that allowed him to continue. We asked him about the prospect of not being able to play and about his recent collaborations.
Westword: What is the joy you find in playing the guitar?
Leo Kottke: It saved my life when I was a kid. I'd been sick. Now it is my life. I wouldn't call it joy, but that's in there. It's more than joy — and it gives me the creeps just saying that — but it's true.
By and large, your career has been that of solo performances and albums. You have, however, performed with Rickie Lee Jones, and also recently did an album with Mike Gordon of Phish. Why leave the solo world? What's to be gained by such collaborations?
Well, musically, it stretches me. You get a little desiccated playing by yourself all the time, sort of like being locked in a closet — but it's a great closet. I never intended leaving solo performance, and haven't. I just got involved.
I read that Mississippi John Hurt was an early inspiration. What other musicians did you look to in developing your playing style, or is your style simply of your own creation?
Nothing of it is deliberate. It's more like being hungry and getting fed. I was shoplifting a BB gun — I think I was in the fourth grade — when I heard Kim Fowley and the Hollywood Argyles doing "Alley Oop" on a sound system in a store in Cheyenne. Years later, he walked by the studio where I was recording my first record for Capitol, and we put him on the record. I don't know if that's influence, but it's something other than joy.
You had tendon damage that slowed your career a bit in the 1980s. Did you ever worry that you might have to stop playing music?
Sure did. Touch and go — and a lot of bad concerts — for about three years. Then, voilà, I changed my technique and found home. I was very lucky.
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