A Guitarist and a Heartbreaker
Leo Kottke and Billy Ray Cyrus are each riding high with their recent releases of `Great Big Boy' and `Some Gave All,' with the latter topping worldwide music charts
AUSTIN, TEXAS — LEO KOTTKE, the master of the steel-string acoustic guitar, recently videotaped a performance for next Jan. 23rd's broadcast of the PBS music show "Austin City Limits." Not a single song came from his new album, "Great Big Boy."
"Yeah, I'm kind of a deconstructionist when it comes to marketing," Mr. Kottke shrugs, even though he says his 25th album could be his best.
Guitar buffs revere the Minneapolis soloist for compositions that should require an extra pair of hands to play.
A Kottke concert resembles a cycle of nature in which notes cascade from his instrument and, evaporated into audience rapture, return as a shower of superlatives.
Yet Kottke's appeal has never sunk to the lowest common denominator - pop radio.
His (usually) instrumental-only melodies, merging folk and flamenco and bottleneck slides, are an easily acquired taste if radio jocks could only be weaned from hamburger.
With "Great Big Boy," Kottke has finally dished up a menu of songs to make radio programmers salivate. His six- and 12-string guitars are delicious as ever, but dessert is the sung or spoken lyrics on every track - making this Kottke's first all-vocals album.
The lyrics display the humorously convoluted inner-logic that Kottke first revealed decades ago as "the guy who didn't marry pretty Pamela Brown" (a song so used up for him now that Kottke avoids even discussing it by name).
On the new album, "Pepe Hush" tells of being driven chihuahua-cidal by the barking dog in the motel room next door.
In "The Other Day," a truck-driving Joe disparages the banal women in his life and praises hypothetical "hippy chicks." Is it offensive to Kottke that some compare this song to rap music?
"It's not to me," he says. "I'm sure it would be to some rappers."
"Driver" is an unsettling narrative. A smuggler brings 18 Latino refugees across the border and then lets them die in the heat: "Their bones fall like snow - around his soul." Kottke relishes that "left turn" at the end of the song.
Radio stations are giving "Great Big Boy" more airplay than any of his songs in 15 years, Kottke says.
Critics love it, and cash registers are ringing. Everyone's ecstatic, it seems, except his label, Private Music.
"I've gotten the command from on high - on high being my record label - not to do that again," Kottke says.
Private Music prefers instrumental works that are acceptable to its regular network of radio stations. Yet "Great Big Boy" has achieved greater triumph than usual, and with no effort by the label.
"It's funny to be told to go somewhere else" with his vocals after that, Kottke says. Talkin' with Billy Ray
Twice already Billy Ray Cyrus has canceled and rescheduled an interview, so it's a relief when, after waiting a quarter of an hour, the telephone finally rings.
An assistant to Mr. Cyrus apologizes that the Achy Breaky heartthrob has only just landed in Hickory, N.C. Can our conversation be kept to 12 minutes, he pleads, so Cyrus doesn't fall further behind?
Little wonder that, after he comes on the line a moment later, the Kentucky crooner complains that the press propagates misconceptions. He tells his favorite - "I was an ex-Chippendale's dancer" - with restrained disgust. "That was ludicrous."
But no more unlikely than many facets of his career. Seemingly destined for baseball, he hung up his catcher's mitt 11 years ago and, on an impulse, bought a guitar.
"Oh, I do miss baseball," Cyrus moans. "It's kind of weird," he notes, but his childhood fantasy of standing on the field during the World Series came true earlier this month in the first game - when he sang the national anthem.
Then there's the way Cyrus struts around stage as the audience pelts him with intimate apparel. The wunderhunk claims that he was too shy in school to fast dance in front of the other kids.
How about his perseverance? Cyrus made the 12-hour round-trip drive between Huntington, W. Va., and Nashville 42 times during 1989, trying to get the attention of the record moguls.
"Quitting was never an option for me," he says. "It was burn all bridges and do or die."
Most incredible is the success of "Achy Breaky Heart," the catchy, corny tune written by Don Von Tress and released on "Some Gave All," Cyrus's debut album.
Largely on the strength of that song - promoted with savvy by Mercury Records - "Some Gave All" has sold more than 4.5 million copies since May 19. It was the first debut album to enter the country charts at No. 1, and it held that position for 18 weeks, the longest of any debut album.
The patriotic title cut is the singer's favorite. Someday his tombstone in the family plot in Louisa, Ky., will read "Some Gave All," Cyrus affirms.
None of the other songs are grand slams like "Achy Breaky Heart," but the lineup lets Cyrus run the bases with a pleasingly melodic voice that also bursts with burly passion. If your daughter's boyfriend ever serenaded her like that, you'd seal her bedroom window shut.
Worldwide, "Some Gave All" remains the No. 1 selling album, Cyrus says. Soon he'll take his act to Australia, Japan, and Europe. How does that feel?
"Very satisfying," he reflects. "My goal was to make music until my music could be heard around the world. I don't think I would have bought a guitar if I hadn't of wanted to go to the top."