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SOUNDS : Guitar Charmer on Path of His Own : Leo Kottke has forged ahead with his own distinctive sound while the acoustic revolution has gone on around him.

June 17, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Acoustic guitarists--as a viable, commercial, self-sustaining concept--came in out of their private wilderness long ago. They came, freely mashing together instrumental folk, bluegrass and whatever other spices caught their fancy, and sizable hordes of listeners soaked it up.

To put it in historical perspective, the acoustic pioneers of the late '60s/early '70s--John Fahey, Robbie Basho, Bert Jansch--planted the seeds for the second generation of New Age marketeers of the '80s, including Windham Hill's guitar-wielding guru Will Ackerman. Suddenly, the acoustic guitar world was a boom town again.

Through it all, there has been the boy-faced, man-sized all-American hero, Leo Kottke. But Kottke, never one to run with a pack, has always carved out his own place. Kottkeville, population one.

With a style that is equal parts aw-shucks and look-ma-no-hands, Kottke has faithfully worked at his cottage industry, making 21 records in as many years. His signature sound combines clankety, rolling finger style--with his trademark mumbling thumb-- gravel-chewing baritone vocals, lovely balladic oddities and forays off the beaten folk highway in the direction of jazz and classical music.

And he does it all with an unpretentiousness and sideways wit that makes him one of our most heroic guitar charmers.

It makes perfect, poetic sense that Kottke is making his debut at the Live Oak Festival on Friday night. In its five years of life, this spunky, weekend-long festival has only expanded its stylistic attitude, broadening from the folk-country axis to include select jazz and world-music acts.

Somewhere in the big, wide midsection of the musical map, that's where you'll find Kottkeville.

A proud resident of Minnesota when he's not circling the globe, Kottke has been in Los Angeles recently to finish his newest album, produced by Ojai's own Rickie Lee Jones, whose own new album features Kottke in a rare guest shot.

Last week, the affable Kottke spoke on the phone from his motel, in a deceptively low-key drawl that--like his guitar playing--almost disguises his wry articulateness. But not quite.

Are you doing much live playing now, or are you just in recording mode?

Well, I'm in and out. In a busy year, I tour probably 80% of the year. Actually, "tour" is a misnomer: I answer the phone and go to the job. That's a year-round proposition. It's so nice being all by yourself.

The first words (guitarist) John McLaughlin ever said to me were, "Boy, you sure travel light." I remember that. He just pulled up with two semis and a bunch of arguing band members.

How did you come to use Rickie Lee Jones as a producer for your new record?

She liked the last record, and I met her through the bass player on that record, Jeff Leftwich. We became friends. I played a lot on her new record. Boy, was that a thrill, and a great education. It was terrific.

Do you find that the records of yours that have the more difficult births are better in some way?

No. I've been looking, all along, for some basic truths about recording, and I haven't found any. God, I wish there were some, 'cause I've got records that came out under great stress that don't sound like they did. And others were real relaxed, but they sound like everybody was in hell as we were making it.

The very first record that I did, I recorded it in three hours and played everything I knew. I have never been more nervous and wrecked, just emotionally. I was scared to death. That was in '68 or '69. You know, there's some immaturity to the thing and to some of the writing, but it's a nice record. It has something that none of the others have had since.

Is it hard for you to separate tasks of being a songwriter, lyrically and instrumentally? Are these from different parts of the brain?

I used to think so, and I think that's why I have so many vocals laying around where the vocals give me the creeps. It took me a long time to get as loose with the lyrics as I am with the music as far as the vocals and the guitar part for a vocal go.

Is the "whatever works" attitude a kind of credo for you?

Yeah. That's a real luxury, but I get to indulge it because I'm so alone most of the time. I don't have to do those negotiations and work out everything with the band.

Do you sense that, by now, you've built up an audience that will follow you almost anywhere?

I have that feeling and an equally strong sense that they won't. My audience is made up--I know this is true--of people who don't ordinarily run into each other. They have all kinds of tastes and ages. That seems to have always been true. That may leave me a lot of room to fool around.

* WHERE AND WHEN

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