Sound Advice: Leo Kottke's Troubadour Tunes are Heading to Cincinnati

Leo Kottke plays Ludlow Garage on May 19.

click to enlarge Leo Kottke - Photo: Dmileson, Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Dmileson, Wikimedia Commons
Leo Kottke

This story is featured in CityBeat's May 3 print edition.

Listening to Leo Kottke’s music is a unique and confounding experience. Whether playing a 6- or 12-string guitar, you could swear that two or more people are responsible for the music that Kottke produces on his own. Melodies skip and meander; the glassy sweep of a slide is suddenly introduced, blurring notes like a Windexed window; or a familiar theme like “America the Beautiful” may make an unexpected appearance. All the while, steady bass strings are thumbed, keeping the song from collapsing in a cacophony of steel and wood, like a block hastily yanked from a Jenga tower. 

Kottke first gained attention on John Fahey's label Takoma Records with the 1969 album 6- and 12-String Guitar, referred to simply as the "armadillo record" by fans. Containing some of his best compositions like “The Driving of the Year Nail,” his arrangement of Bach's “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring,” and the feverish “Vaseline Machine Gun,” 6- and 12-String Guitar has proven itself to be an enduring and widely influential record for budding finger-pickers working within the American primitive scene, a style of guitar playing developed and popularized by Fahey. 

Kottke's influence can be heard in the music of countless guitarists, from the late Jack Rose to James Blackshaw, William Tyler and Daniel Bachman. As of late, he's revisited a collaboration with Phish's Mike Gordon, resulting in 2020's Noon. Kottke and Gordon first worked together in 2002, producing Clone and later the well-received Sixty Six Steps in 2005.

For a mostly-instrumental musician, Kottke is also a born storyteller with a quirky sense of humor and deadpan delivery. A glance at his song titles alone — like “When Shrimps Learn to Whistle — will confirm this. At live performances, he is known to entertain his audience between songs with amusing anecdotes taken from his life. The story of his time in Oklahoma, titled "Whitey and the Chicken" from a 1981 concert, is a perfect example and can be found on YouTube. Leo Kottke is an astoundingly talented guitarist and songwriter, and an American treasure. Don't miss the opportunity to witness a true troubadour in action. 

Leo Kottke plays Ludlow Garage at 8:30 p.m. May 19. Doors open at 7 p.m. Info:

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