Kottke is widely known for his innovative finger-picking style, which draws on influences from blues, jazz and folk music. He intersperses humorous monologues during his concerts with vocal and instrumental selections from throughout his career, playing solo on his signature six- and 12-string guitars.
According to a press release, he was born in Athens, Ga., but left town after a year and a half.
Kottke was raised in 12 different states, and, as a child, he absorbed a variety of musical influences. He flirted with both violin and trombone, before abandoning Stravinsky for the guitar at age 11. Early on, he embraced both the country-blues of Mississippi John Hurt as well as the music of John Phillip Sousa and Preston Epps.
Kottke’s youth is an odd collection of eccentric adventures. He dropped out of the University of Missouri to hitchhike across the country, ending up in South Carolina and then New London.
"The trip was not something I enjoyed," he states in the biography. “I was broke and met too many interesting people."
He joined the Navy to be underwater. His service stint eventually led to hearing loss, caused by shooting at light bulbs in the Atlantic while serving aboard the USS Halfbeak, a diesel submarine.
After being discharged from the Navy in 1964, Kottke settled in the Twin Cities area and became a fixture at Minneapolis' Scholar Coffeehouse, which had been 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 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 released his major-label debut, "Mudlark," in 1971. The album 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 Bruce, Kottke flourished during his tenure on 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 1975's “Chewing Pine,” 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.
More recently, Kottke’s 2002 collaboration with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, "Clone," earned him a new set of fans. The two followed with a recording in the Bahamas called "Sixty Six Steps," produced by Kottke’s old friend and Prince producer David Z.
Kottke has been awarded two Grammy nominations as well as a Doctorate in Music Performance by the Peck School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.