Acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke was born in Athens, Georgia, but shortly thereafter his family began a nomadic life that impacted his early years. Raised in 12 different states, he absorbed a variety of musical influences as a child, flirting with both violin and trombone, before abandoning his young dreams of becoming the next Stravinsky for the allure of the acoustic guitar. Subsequently, he began to love the country-blues of Mississippi John Hurt in addition to his affection for the music of John Phillip Sousa and Preston Epps.
Leo Kottke enrolled at the University of Missouri, dropping out after a year to hitchhike across the country to South Carolina, then on to New London and into the Navy, always accompanied by his twelve-string.
Discharged in 1964, he settled in the Twin Cities area and became a fixture at Minneapolis’ Scholar Coffeehouse, home to Bob Dylan and John Koerner. He issued his 1968 recording debut LP Twelve String Blues, recorded on a Viking quarter-inch tape recorder, for the Scholar’s tiny Oblivion label.
After sending demo tapes to guitarist John Fahey, Kottke was signed to Fahey’s Takoma label, releasing what has come to be called the Armadillo record. Fahey and his manager Denny Bruce soon secured a production deal for Kottke with Capitol Records.
Kottke’s 1971 major-label debut, Mudlark positioned him somewhat uneasily in the singer-songwriter vein, despite his own wishes to remain an instrumental performer. Still, despite arguments with label heads as well as with Denny Bruce, Kottke flourished during his tenure at Capitol, as records like 1972’s Greenhouse and 1973’s live My Feet Are Smiling and Ice Water found him branching out with guest musicians and honing his guitar technique.
With Chewing Pine (1975), Kottke reached the U.S. Top 30 for the second time; he also gained an international following thanks to his continuing tours in Europe and Australia.
His collaboration on Clone with Phish bassist Mike Gordon gained attention in 2002. Kottke and Gordon followed with a recording in the Bahamas called Sixty Six Steps.
Kottke has been recognized with two Grammy Award nominations; a Doctorate in Music Performance by the Peck School of Music at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; and a Certificate of Significant Achievement in Not Playing the Trombone from the University of Texas at Brownsville with Texas Southmost College.