Gabe Frank on Folk Guitarists
Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan’s 1975 revival album, has long been praised by critics and Dylan fans alike. This is due in part to the mood it creates.
We feel Dylan’s sense of melancholy and cynicism through his poignant lyrics and his famous strained voice. The general essence feels almost tangled up in blue, if you will, and is also due to Dylan’s instrumentation. There is nothing out of the ordinary — just drums, bass, keyboards, harmonica and acoustic and electric guitar. However, it’s them all in conjunction — namely the acoustic guitar — that creates a true folk sound. Dylan, not the most technical of guitarists, wrote fairly simple licks, but they’re arguably one of the more important aspects of the album, especially on some of the quieter songs.
Leo Kottke is a contemporary of Dylan’s and a more capable guitarist. Their music, although not exactly the same, has many overlapping aspects: similar instrumentation with emphasis on acoustic guitar. However, it’s here where Kottke’s skill as a musician comes through. Like Dylan, Kottke primarily uses a finger-picking style, but it is his use of both the six and 12-string guitars that has a depth which Dylan’s playing lacks.
This is best exemplified on the aptly named 1969 album 6 and 12 String Guitar. On this album, Kottke’s playing is rich. His chords and melody lines are almost sweet, yet quite precise and demanding. His technical finger-picking ability is unmatched. In addition, he fully shows his depth as a musician on this album by incorporating slide guitar elements. We can hear the twang of the steel strings and the slide. This, coupled with the finger-picking, creates a sense of variety and dynamism, and shows off a true acoustic guitar master. Another noteworthy album of his is the 1971 Mudlark. This album has a more folk-rock feel, as opposed to the solo folk acoustic guitar on 6 and 12 String Guitar. Kottke sings on this album, a rarity since he describes it as “Geese farts on a muggy day.” It’s here, too, where he and Dylan have another similarity.
Another folk guitarist similar to both Kottke and Dylan is Chris Smither. Although not as skilled a guitarist as Kottke, Smither is still quite capable. His songwriting ability, however, rivals that of Dylan. He too creates a sense of melancholy, but also has softer and more winsome aspects. Smither’s music is primarily focused on his guitar playing and lyrics, as opposed to a full band that Dylan and Kottke sometimes employ. His concerts are more intimate, consisting of just him and his guitar along with a small audience. Down to Earth, Smither frequently engages the audience in conversation and it is here where we can hear his voice. His voice has a certain rasp, but it is not a detriment. It instead provides subtleties that were made for folk singing.
All three musicians are talented in their own way. They each focus on different aspects of folk music, but accomplish the same end result. Dylan, Kottke and Smither all further the genre and set high bars upon which subsequent generations of acoustic singer/songwriters can try to achieve.