Blues travelers

This week, The Grey Eagle presents a chance to catch Leo Kottke and John Hammond just two days apart.

Both veteran guitarists, Kottke and Hammond are icons of folk and the blues, respectively — and thus, metaphorically speaking, they strum to different drummers.

But their roots run deep in one another’s territory.

Kottke and Hammond were heavily impacted by both styles of music during their formative years. For Hammond, who was drawn to blues as a young child, the emerging early-’60s folk movement played a pivotal role in deepening his exposure. As for Kottke, his love of elder blues guitarists inspired him after his switch from violin and trombone to guitar.

Taken as a whole, their collective body of work illustrates the overlap between the two forms, as well as how easy and natural it is for musicians to progress in transit from one to the other.

These days, both Kottke and Hammond are enjoying newfound creative freedom — Kottke to record instrumental solo guitar music (always his primary goal in the first place) and Hammond to branch out into songwriting (a first) and other styles besides blues.

Once describing his own voice as “geese farts on a foggy day,” Kottke has, throughout his career, had to push against record-company pressure to stick to releasing instrumental music. His new album, Try and Stop Me (RCA), opens with a guitar that sounds a lot like a harpsichord. In Kottke’s able hands, the instrument, despite its sharp and somewhat stiff metallic tone, becomes vibrant and otherworldly. He plays as if he’s bending rigid pitches into subtle shades of melody.

Because, as usual, Kottke makes one guitar seem like layers of guitars flowing into one another, the album often seems like it’s being played on different sets of chimes going off at once.

Moreover, as all of the album is played on the same instrument (except for closing number “The Banks of Marble”), Kottke keeps the listener’s interest with music that is by turns breezy, sedate, racing, majestic, bluesy, reflective, soothing, somber, and medieval. His work, even without vocals, has often been described as “narrative,” and Try and Stop Me is filled with peaks, valleys and currents of harmonic drift.

To fans, this should come as no surprise. As Lyle Lovett once said, “playing acoustic guitar on stage with Leo Kottke is like pitching to [baseball great] Darryl Strawberry.”

Formally trained as a child on trombone, Kottke gave the instrument up after a demoralizing performance at an Oklahoma state fair. Supposedly, everyone — even the judges — broke out in laughter when Kottke announced his selection, “Down Home on the Farm.” He would go on to say that trombone “ruined” him for formal study.

“It ruined me for study, but not for theory or the classics. So I’m a sponge for such stuff,” he explained in a recent interview, before adding, in typically wry manner, “but I’m slower than your usual sponge.”

Fortuitously, he had also been given a guitar by his parents just before that incident, a gift to help the young Kottke cope with the death of his sister.

“I was wasting away,” he says. “Sick all the time. And the guitar cured me — an E-chord, actually.”

Before then, Kottke had been drawn to guitar “not at all. I didn’t even think it was a musical instrument, just some ‘thing.’ The only time I’d heard one was when a father-and-son pair showed up one morning in Cheyenne, at my grade school, and played a couple tunes for us. They wore matching sequined suits.”

At the time, their music, he confesses, “didn’t even make a dent on me.”

Better late than …

Meanwhile, a young John Hammond was having formative experiences of his own, including seeing bluesman Jimmy Reed perform at Harlem’s storied Apollo Theater.

“Seeing him play the harmonica and play guitar at the same time,” he recalls. “I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”

But how exactly does a fairly affluent kid growing up in New York City in the 1950s get hooked on blues?

“Well, I don’t know,” Hammond says by phone, with a laugh. “I wasn’t the only one. There were many people who gravitated towards the music because it was so passionate and deep. Somehow I connected to the tradition of it.”

Generally regarded as a key contributor to the widespread popularization of blues during the 1960s, Hammond says his attraction was sparked rather naturally by folk artists who were exposing audiences to the blues via the NYC coffeehouse scene. Bohemian-minded Greenwich Village was a center of cafe culture at the time.

“Having been born in the Village, I was first-hand aware of the folk boom,” Hammond explains. “The first folk boom began in the late ’40s with artists like the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, etc. There was a whole revival of the American folk traditions. And Pete Seeger included Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee [on his] radio show. He was very politically left and progressive and very inclusive of all of American folk music — including blues.

“I got sucked right in,” says Hammond. “There were artists like Josh White, Leadbelly, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee that played in nightclubs in New York. I got to hear Big Bill Broonzy when I was nine years old.”

Though Hammond grew up with his mother, it’s hard to imagine that his tastes weren’t somehow impacted by his father, John Hammond, Sr., the famed Columbia Records producer, talent scout, A&R man, critic, and champion of swing, black music and civil rights. Hammond, Jr. feels that the new society-wide sensitivity to racism during his youth played a huge role in young, white audiences discovering the blues.

“I think it’s our generation that made a lot of social changes,” he says. “Things that just had to be brought to a head. Musicians had always been rubbing elbows despite Jim Crow laws, but civil rights was right in there, and the desegregation of the U.S. had a lot to do with the music, I think.”

Admittedly not a songwriter, Hammond has spent most of his career re-interpreting works by other artists, mostly blues, but lately has begun spreading his wings, largely at the prompting of his wife Marla, and also after being “opened up” working with Tom Waits. His 2001 album, Wicked Grin (Pointblank Records), consists entirely of Waits tunes produced by Waits himself.

“Just being around him was very inspiring. Everything came together. I felt like I could do anything,” he says, then adds: “And by the way, he is a genius.”

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