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Guitar gave Kottke life, career: Musician known for unique style, sound, plays at Mystic

Renowned acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke says the guitar didn't just give him a career -- it saved his life.

"It was a bad time. I was 11 years old. My sister had died after a life-long illness, and I just nosedived," he said. "I had no interest in anything. I kept getting sicker. They (doctors) were worried about my heart. I was supposed to lie on my back and not sit up."

His mother gave him a toy guitar, Kottke said, because it was an instrument he could play in bed.

"I made up an E chord and I strummed it and I sat up like Dracula coming out of his box. I was alive! I'd been on my back for two months and I was out of bed in a week."

From then on, Kottke was hooked. "I knew all I wanted was the guitar. Everything came to me all at once and it expanded inside me in a rush," he said. "Everything woke up."

That epiphany led Kottke to experiment with the guitar. He finger-picked with open tunings on both six- and twelve-string guitars to create quirky, original sounds and became revered by musicians and fans alike for his masterful compositions.

Though he didn't plan on making his living as a musician, "it just sort of happened," he said. "I had to make it work because of the usual stuff: you go broke, you knock up your wife, your guitars get stolen ...

"And now I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't play -- it takes over."

Kottke developed a loyal following in the 1970s, starting as a singer-songwriter, then moving on to what he loves best, instrumentals.

"In the beginning all I did was sing. I was actually more of a shouter," he said. "All of a sudden I started writing a lot of instrumentals and they were working."

Singing is something Kottke still does occasionally -- the labels demanded it, he said -- but he'd rather let the guitar speak for itself.

"I actually like to sing now," he said, "but I forget to because I'm attracted more to the guitar."

Fans still get plenty of Kottke's voice at his shows, as he often tells discursive stories between songs.

Kottke says his breakthrough moment was decades ago when he was working on a song called "Ojo," which would become one of his fans' favorites.

It was on that song that he says he broke through his habits and found an unexpected solution to a musical problem.

"It's like jumping off a cliff," he said. "You have to force yourself to run at this spot where habit and expectation usually takes over and ... jump so that you can't recover, and in that way out-distance your own expectation.

"And then you're flailing, you're dying, that's when something can get in. You do have to be available to it (the alchemy of musical creation) when it wants to happen. When that thing pops in -- there is no thrill like that. There's nothing I know that's as much of a kick as that. That's the hook -- that's what really keeps you going."

Kottke says he appreciates playing more than ever as hearing loss (from a childhood firecracker incident, worsened by time spent on a military firing range) and tendonitis threatened his career. Suffering from tendon damage during the 1980s, Kottke had to change his technique from his attacking finger-picking style to a strumming motion using his fingertips.

"That was good for me in the long run. I can play much better now," he said. "I can get more dynamics. But it took over three years to work that out, with no guarantee that it would get worked out."

Facing the loss of his vocation and passion, Kottke appreciated guitar playing even more.

"A couple times because of injuries, it's been brought home to me that I could lose it," he said. "That when I realized that it means more to me than even I thought it did. It's never faded even from that first day."

Kottke, who plays a Taylor guitar he helped design and which is named for him, said being a touring musician is tough on his personal life. He hasn't been home (Minnesota's Twin Cities) for more than two months straight since 1969. But he's grounded himself in his music.

"Another musician said that for him his guitar is a woman -- I felt sorry for him -- but for me it's a place," Kottke said.

Is that place home?

"Yeah, that's it," he said in his deep baritone. "That's right."

Michael Shapiro writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. Contact him at michael. shapiro@pressdemocrat. com or see his site: www. michaelshapiro.net.

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