The E chord changed Leo Kottke’s life trajectory |

The E chord changed Leo Kottke’s life trajectory

Acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke, who is scheduled to play three nights at the Egyptian Theatre next week, says the guitar came to him when he was a sick child and has been running his life ever since.
Photo by David Barnum

An Evening with Leo Kottke

8 p.m. on Thursday, June 13, through Saturday, June 15

Thursday tickets range from $29-$45; Friday tickets are $35-$55 and Saturday tickets are $39-$60


Acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke has lived many lives.

He discovered music at an early age and honed his skills on the violin and trombone.

Kottke’s parents gave him a toy guitar during one of many bouts of serious illness, and he maintains that the E chord healed him.

From then on, Kottke was seldom seen without his six- or 12-string companions.

He suffered hearing loss in his left ear due to a firecracker accident, and damaged his hearing in his right ear while serving in the Navy Reserve.

After his discharge, Kottke took his trusty guitar and hitchhiked around the country, playing anywhere and anytime to make a living.

He released his first album “6 and 12 String Guitar” in 1969, and befriended an array of like-minded musicians including Leon Redbone, who passed away last week, Margo Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies and Lyle Lovett.

The Park Record caught up with Kottke, who will perform June 13 to June 15 at the Egyptian Theatre, for an email question and answer session.

The correspondence is below:

Park Record: 2019 marks the 50-year anniversary of “6 and 12 String Guitar,” known to fans as “The Armadillo Album.” Is it a surprise to think that you are celebrating half a century playing music?

Leo Kottke: I’m more and more convinced that everything happens at the same time. I remember thinking that I might last ten years but then what? Didn’t look good. Anyhow, I’m a lucky man. I like my job. There is no ten years.

P.R.: Speaking of your early days as a musician, did you have an idea of what you wanted to accomplish with your music, or was more of a “just play and see what happens” thing?

L.K.: The guitar hit the spot. It took over when I was an ill boy and has run things ever since. It became a job only because performance gets me more guitar. You can’t hide from it up there. You learn stuff.

P.R.: I remember a past interview when you said the E chord was the key to your career. What was it about that chord that resonated with you?

L.K.: I don’t know. Maybe we’d have to ask the chord. I have nothing to do with any of this. I made up a chord and life came back into me. I’d been in rough shape. I have zero idea what happened — except that it’s never left me.

P.R.: Many musicians sometimes see their instrument as a gift or a curse, and sometimes both. How would you define your relationship with the guitar?

L.K.: It definitely takes over. Musicians, artists of any stripe, can be a bad bet that way. It’s pretty weird, and weird for other people, when you’re in love with a piece of wood. You don’t know what you’ve sacrificed until you can’t go back. Kinda spooky, but I’d be dead without it.

It’s pretty weird, and weird for other people, when you’re in love with a piece of wood.

Leo Kottke

P.R.: Throughout your career, you have worked with a list of people that include Rickie Lee Jones, Mike Gordon and Stephen Paulus. Did those and other collaborations influence how you approach your music today?

L.K.: There’s no such thing as influence or inspiration. There’s no approach. It’s more elemental than that. Friendship. Hard work disguised as appetite, maybe. I do see faces. Today, (it’s) Leon Redbone. We’re all kinda doing the same thing, except maybe Leon. He was more. When I met Leon 40 years ago I asked him why he had a hole in his trumpet case. “So my umbrella can stick out,” he said. (It was) the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

P.R.: With a catalog of music under your belt, how do you go about deciding what to play during your live shows?

L.K.: I wait for something to float by. You don’t want to be thinking on stage. Thought is a real handicap up there.

P.R.: Are there any musical ideas you would like to focus more time on?

L.K.: I don’t think I’ve ever had any ideas. It’s just all there in the guitar. Things pop up. You have to be quick (and) pay attention. That’s it.

P.R.: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career up to now?

L.K.: The next job.

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