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Travelin’ Man

Leo Kottke brings stories of his travels and songs from his heart to the Paramount Center on Friday

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Leo Kottke will perform at the Paramount Center for the Arts on Friday.

Young Leo Kottke grabbed his guitar and took to his heels, stuck out his thumb, found America.

Hear the master guitarist ply the sterling Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee with stories of his travels and songs from his heart on Friday, Jan. 21. It’s an immersive experience.

“It’s kind of necessary,” said Kottke, by phone from his home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, of his show’s mix of music and anecdotes. “There’s something about stepping away from the guitar (for a few minutes) so that you’ll know what you want to do when you go back to the guitar.”

Kottke earned his place among the world’s finest acoustic guitarists during a career that spans nearly 60 years. A self-taught player, Kottke’s education on six- and-12-string guitars began in childhood.

But first came the trombone and violin.

“I really did think the trombone was me, as much as you really think in 7th grade,” Kottke said. “The piano didn’t work for me. The guitar found me, that much I can make sense of. I’m into the instrument. I’m a guitar player.”

Born in Georgia, Kottke’s family moved often throughout his childhood. While attending school in Virginia, he came upon a guitar in a record store.

“My grandmother bought it for me. Her name was Ethel,” he said. “It’s a Gibson D-45 12-string. It had a lot of Ethel in it. It’s a fit. My guitar. They made them for about three years. Well, I just picked up Ethel, and that was it.”

For a time, Kottke tried college in Missouri. But the guitar and road called, and to each he went, shoe leather applied to the side of a highway, thumb in the wind.

“I took off, and it was memorable,” Kottke said. “I started in Missouri and got to Norfolk, Virginia.”

Knapsack on his back, guitar in hand, in seeking freedom he found an America that helped to inspire him and his music.

“I was wearing a peacoat in Norfolk,” Kottke said. “This guy said, ‘You shouldn’t be wearing a peacoat. It will get you beat up.’ He picked me up because I had a guitar. He took me out to this cinderblock house, which was his home. He asked me to play guitar.”

Kottke tells stories like Woody Guthrie wrote songs. They’re pictures of life sewn from the quilt of Americana.

By the early 1970s, Capitol Records signed Kottke. Such albums as 1971’s “Mudlark” and 1975’s “Chewing Pine” helped to establish him on the national music scene.

“They were wonderful,” Kottke said of Capitol Records. “My agent wanted me to change labels. They wanted to keep me. I should have stayed. They were a great label.”

From the late ’70s and into the 1980s, Kottke recorded six critically acclaimed albums for Chrysalis Records. Since then, he’s experimented with bold interpretations of jazz, folk and light touches of country music across a span of more than a dozen albums.

Kottke’s latest album, “Noon,” a collaboration with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, was issued in 2020.

“They just sort of present themselves,” he said of his albums. “I go with what I’ve got at the time. Some people plan those things, map them out, but I never do that.”

Like the youngster who rode his thumb across America, Kottke’s wanderlust carries on in the form of his music. Much of what he does today can be traced to his love of the music and personality of bluesman Mississippi John Hurt.

“It’s that posture, that stance, that quality. I got that from John Hurt and Fred McDowell,” Kottke said. “I saw John Hurt one time in Washington, D.C.”

Yep, another Kottke gem of a story. Who knows? Maybe he’ll tell this one in Bristol.

“His wife was in the front row, and he would smile his two-tooth smile at her,” Kottke said. “And it could melt a rock.”

Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He may be reached at features@bristolnews.com.

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