A few years ago on NPR's "Prairie Home Companion," show host Garrison Keiller introduced Leo Kottke as "the hardest working man in the guitar business."
It's an apt description, says the often-lauded, acoustic guitar virtuoso.
"I work all the time. I love to play. All the players I like, from the two Pacos (Pena and De Lucia) to Pete (Seeger), cook ceaselessly. I'm in that 1 percent who likes their work. The more I do it, the more I want to do it."
Leo Kottke performs at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 6. Tickets are $30, $40, and $50 (plus applicable fees), available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
Anthony Pepitone photo
Ever since Kottke burst on the music scene in the early 1970s with his solo album, "Six and Twelve String Guitar," this brilliant guitarist has amazed audiences with his phenomenal finger-picking style.
Bucking trends and commercial pressures, Kottke continually earns wide praise. Reviewing one of his concerts, the L.A. Times enthused: "His playing was so pure, precise and filled with ringing chords one almost forgot the technique required to produce such a sound. Though his set lasted nearly two hours, time seemed suspended."
Born in Athens, Ga., Kottke absorbed a variety of musical influences as a child, flirting with both violin and trombone before trying his hand at guitar at age 11.
"I had been sick in bed for a couple months, not allowed to sit up," Kottke recalls. "Since I was a trombone player, my mom took pity on me and brought home a toy guitar. After a week on an E chord, I sat up, cured. Been that way ever since. When I can't play anymore, I'm going back to bed."
So was there a point early on when he realized he had developed his own unique style?
"I've never thought it was mine, but I know every time I find a new piece that it's still happening," he says. "That's the hook, because composing is a genuine and hair-raising adventure. I'll go nuts looking for it. Finding it is the cure. If there's a guitar around, I can be a happy man."
Gaining his initial reputation touring with top rock acts, Kottke wowed crowds, blazing through aptly-titled showstoppers like "Busted Bicycle" and "Vaseline Machine Gun." His 12-string assaults were sometimes compared to a locomotive out of control.
Besides his guitar wizardry, Kottke became known for his wry wit displayed in occasional non-instrumental compositions that pepper his recordings with quirky ruminations on life.
"The labels forced me into it, but I've got a home in it now," he says about singing. "It's me, or a good resemblance, it just took a while. I've been next to Linda Ronstadt, Iris Dement, Tony Bennett, Bonnie Raitt, to drop a few names, and heard their voices come out of the air in front of them. I've sung with most of them. They don't even breathe, it just appears. I try to stay in school on that."
Record companies have sometimes prodded him into uncomfortable territory, though he's still resisted making a Christmas album.
"There's been a general push by my labels to sing, use rhythm sections, but that's not necessarily a bad idea," he continues. "I could use more time, especially in the beginning. You can't just drop a guy, who's always played solo, into a rhythm section and expect him to know what he's doing. So that's where the problems are - when they want me to, I don't wanna."
In the last few years Kottke has teamed with Phish bassist Mike Gordon for two wonderful albums.
"We were friends, so it was probably inevitable that we'd play," he says. "Despite expectations, what happened was unexpected and it's still that way, note for note, always surprising. Just makes me smile. He can play what he thinks, and that's very rare."
The duo first collaborated in 2002, releasing the album "Clone." A couple of years later Gordon suggested he wanted to record an island experiment as his first post-Phish project.
Infused with a playful spirit reflected in its breezy, tropical influences, "Sixty Six Steps" mixes instrumentals and vocal compositions. The musicians dip into their past repertoires, perform some new tunes and uniquely interpret a few covers including Fleetwood Mac's classic "Oh Well" and the Aerosmith rocker "Sweet Emotion," sung in Kottke's droll, monotone style.
"I might have suggested it, but that's a real group effort, all of us and a lot of David Z, the producer," he notes. "He wanted to do 'Oh, Well.' You just start goofing and things happen. On that second record, Mike had gone down to the Bahamas to find a drummer, Neil Symonette. He heard that island thing in our stuff. So we wound up there with Neil and had a ball for a few days."
Along with crafting delightful originals, Kottke has created some memorable interpretations of songs over the years, from Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" to the Allman Brothers' "Little Martha." On his 1997 album, "Standing in my Shoes," he reworked Fleetwood Mac's "World Turning," complete with an impassioned sitar solo. And attuned to the times, he closed his most recent solo album, "Try & Stop Me," with The Weavers' activist classic "Banks of Marble," performed with Los Lobos.
"Los Lobos seemed to like it," he says. "They were doing me a great favor to come in and play. They'd literally just landed after two months out. The lyric is pure economy, in both senses."
"I saw the farmer working,
plowing sod and loam,
And I heard the auction
hammer knocking down his home.
The banks are made of marble,
with a guard at every door,
and the vaults are stuffed with silver,
that the farmer sweated for."
Pete Seeger's solo version of the song was an early inspiration for him.
"Pete's one unique and brilliant instrumentalist," he says. "A great ear for harmony. 'Coal Creek March,' a recent song about Dr. King, 'The Bells of Rhymney,' 'Way Out There.' Plus, he's had an awful lot of Top 10 hits for a guy who, last I checked, doesn't have a phone. I admire him greatly, except for the no phone stuff. When I asked him for his number, years ago, he drew me a map to his house."
So how does he go about "Leo-izing" familiar songs?
"If they work for me, they work right away," he says. "If there's any effort, they won't work, with one exception, 'Corrina.'
"I'd visit that every couple years for decades. Finally I got it. That one would come, I always knew it. It's long been one of my favorite things. 'Twilight Time' took time to hear, but I knew right away it would come in. I played that once with Joe Pass. It was fascinating to see the difference between us. There's the obvious, as in Joe was a virtuoso, but I was counter-pointing, and Joe was singing, beautiful chordal lines. The guitar will allow that, all kinds of approaches. As far as I can tell, no other instrument is so available."
As to how he would describe his relationship with the guitar, he concludes, "I'm more a part of it than it's a part of me. I'm the ventriloquist manipulated by the dummy. That piece of wood is me."