When Leo Kottke calls The Bulletin to chat, he's right in the middle of a five-day break between a gig in Kirkland, Wash., and tonight's show at the Tower Theatre in Bend (see “If you go”).
But he's not hanging out in the Pacific Northwest, killing time. He's home in Minneapolis. For two days.
“I would call it an error in logistical planning, or whatever the word would be for shipping myself around the country,” Kottke said in his syrupy croak of a speaking voice. “But I'd do the same things in a motel that I do at home, which is sort of fiddle around with a guitar and not much else.”
If this is surprising to you, you're not alone. After more than 40 years as one of the world's most skilled, imaginative and respected acoustic guitarists, Leo Kottke still pulls out his old six-string friend and “picks mindlessly,” even when he's not on stage or writing songs.
To hear him tell it, he has little choice. “I am one of those people who didn't go to the instrument. The instrument came and got me,” he said.
Boy did it. Even in 2012, Kottke — who was born in Georgia, grew up all over the place and eventually settled in Minnesota — is perhaps best-known for his earliest work. His independent debut album, 1969's “12-String Blues,” put him on the map, and his follow-up, “6- and 12-String Guitar,” came out the same year on Takoma Records, the seminal label owned by legendary guitarist John Fahey.
It is still considered one of the greatest and most influential records ever made in a style that would become known as American Primitivism, in which players use the country-blues fingerpicking technique to compose experimental and neo-classical works.
When Kottke recalls the day the guitar came to him, the story shifts from one of inspiration to a tale of life and healing and death.
“I was 11 and a trombone player, (and) I'd been sick for a long time and ... had been in bed for two months and my mom brought home a toy guitar,” he said. “I devised what turned out to be an E chord and hit it and sat right up. It was one of those things you hear about, and it happened to me.
“I was out of bed in a week and I have a feeling that's pretty strong that if I ever lose the guitar I'll be back in bed and gone in two weeks,” Kottke continued. “It took over when I was 11 and hasn't let go since. I don't think it will and I wouldn't want it to, because it's kinda saved my skin.”
What's more, the guitar has given Kottke a long, fruitful career, though he's not sure the woman who planted its seed — his mother, when she brought home that guitar — ever quite grasped that her son's passion became his living.
“She, like my dad, continued to wonder what I was gonna do even though I had taken this detour with the guitar,” he said. “I think they just thought it was an odd quirk of fate and they remained curious about what I ... really did. And that hasn't happened, whatever I really do.”
Of course, the self-effacing Kottke sounds like he's still waiting for the whole thing to collapse around him, too.
“I remain shocked to this minute,” he said. “Every night that I walk on, you stand there in the wings (and) there's always a couple minutes there where everything is let go. You've jumped ship and you're swimming out and I am ... overwhelmed, frankly.
“But it caught on and there is an audience, and I did nothing to deserve that,” he continued. “And I get to meet people that I've listened to and play with them sometimes and be part of the soundstream. It's really a privilege.”