‘I don’t know the place, but the place is the tune’: Leo Kottke brings a life in music to Englert Theatre

An Evening with Leo Kottke

Englert Theatre — Saturday, April 13, 8 p.m.

Leo Kottke will perform at the Englert Theatre on April 13. — Amy Kerwin

At this point, Leo Kottke is made mostly out of broken guitar strings and American myth: a folk instrumental overheard and transcribed by what could be remembered. Even the facts of his life paint wide, patriotic strokes of wordless music.

He was born on September 11, 1945, nine days after World War II ended. Growing up, he had addresses in 12 states. He lost part of the hearing in one ear to a firework, and damaged his other shooting bullets during firing practice while serving the country in the United States Naval Reserves. After gaining success by uniquely and aggressively approaching the acoustic guitar, he then had to scrap his picking style due to tendonitis during the Reagan administration. He reinvented himself, still picking, but different, earning a widespread reputation as a guitar master through countless shows and a total of 21 solo studio albums over the last 50 years.

He brings all of this, an unparalleled but true American story in music, to the Englert Theatre on April 13. Tickets are $33.50-53.50.

Late last week, I sent an email north to Kottke in Minnesota. I received one back just a few hours later.

Denying it a genre, you have described your music as a “scenario.” Do you still see it this way?

I still see a hill with a tree on it. Sometimes a rock. Nothing “inspirational,” just a scene. No idea why it pops up. There’s nobody there, no sound, nothing changes. But I suspect I might have been talking about the way these tunes feel when they come: There’s always a sense of place. Again, I don’t know the place, but the place is the tune.

Growing up, you moved a lot and were raised all over the country. Did you find stability in music during that time?

I have given up on stability. The guitar worked better for me than the trombone, and it lit me up. Some players are lucky enough to find the instruments they’re supposed to be playing.

As a self-taught guitarist, which of your early influences have endured, and are there any contemporary musicians that inspire you?

A guitar sounds good if you drop it on the floor. I can’t stop saying that because it’s true. With players I go through people, just now Pat Metheny. I’m forever on Bill Evans. But these players don’t inspire me, they move me. I don’t think there’s such a thing as inspiration. What’s really needed to write or play is an empty head.

Can you tell me about first sending your tapes to John Fahey? Where had you first heard him, and how did you record your music?

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I heard Fahey after a job in Chicago, [at a club called] The Twelfth of Never. It had been a shoe store the week before. I was staying at some friends’ house, and they put John’s first record on. I liked two of those tunes a lot and sent John the tape. I recorded a couple years later in a warehouse with sheets hung to make a room. In ’68. John waited a year to release the record.

Your stage stories and monologues are the stuff of legend. (I think of this video of you introducing “The Late Zone” as a prime example.) How did you develop your stage presence? Is it a reaction to playing largely instrumental music?

I didn’t have anything to do with it. I’d performed for about three years without looking up. The audience, all 34 of them, scared me. One night something came back to me, and I started talking about it before I knew what I was doing. And I cracked myself up. I really only open my mouth to find out what to play next.

There is a definite Midwest work ethic to your music. Your website even describes your dates as jobs, which reminds me of another Midwestern voice, [writer] Studs Terkel, and his masterpiece, Working. So I’ll steal his question: How do you feel about making your life’s living with a guitar, occasionally a voice and infinite tour miles?

I love Studs. I was asked to be on his show once but nothing came of it. Working was a revelation. Thank you Studs. With my job, the travel often sucks but it’s hardly a big price to pay for getting to play. A lot of people in Studs’ book had to make big accommodations, compromises with themselves, do heartbreaking things. One woman talked of poor people being the ones who would donate when she asked. Anyhow, my jobs are a privilege. I’m one of the lucky ones. Really lucky. Ray Brown, the sublime Ray Brown, died in a motel … Doesn’t seem right, but we got to hear him, and he got to play. Buell Neidlinger died at home. He was reading Ry Cooder’s book, marked his place and stood up.

When you are not working these days, what does life in Minneapolis look like for you?

Kinda like a motel.

Any memories of past days and nights in Iowa City?

Oh yeah, you have some wonderful writers and musicians in Iowa City. Thanks. More power to you.