Born on October 5, 1959, in Sumner, WA. Addresses: Record company--Rykodisc, P.O. Box 141, Gloucester, MA 01931-0141. Management--Nicola Powell, 601 Main Street, Suite 203, Vancouver, WA 98660. Website--Kelly Joe Phelps Official Website: http://www.kellyjoephelps.com.
Guitarist and vocalist Kelly Joe Phelps started as a jazz musician before finding a home among the blues and folk sounds. With his signature slide-guitar style, Phelps established himself as a master of the instrument and a "guitarist's guitarist." Though he had been performing since he was a teenager, he didn't release his first album, Lead Me On, until 1995. This album and two subsequent recordings featured the quivering, emotive sound that became his trademark. Phelps surprised fans with his 2001 release, Sky Like a Broken Clock, which signaled his departure from slide guitar and the blues, and his embrace of folksy compositions and storytelling lyrics. Where he had previously recorded and performed solo, he began to collaborate with other musicians for an entirely new sound.
Phelps was born on October 5, 1959, in Sumner, Washington, and was raised in a musical family. His father taught him to play the piano at age eight, and he steadily added more instruments to his repertoire, including drums and bass. Phelps took up the guitar, which became his instrument of choice, at age 12. As a teenager in the 1970s, he listened to rock 'n' roll. "My first big influence was Jimmy Page," he told the Charleston Gazette, "especially the way he mixed electric and acoustic. He pulled me into the guitar." Yet unlike most of his peers, Phelps was well versed in country and folk as well. "Chet Atkins became a giant influence, and through him I discovered the wonderful world of fingerstyle guitar, and that opened up a lot of doors.... All of that stuff led me into jazz."
Finding inspiration in the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman, Phelps groomed himself into a jazz guitarist with a knack for improvisation. With his Gibson steel-string guitar, Phelps jammed with jazz musicians from his native Washington state. He began playing his first gigs at age 17, and over the next two decades, he gradually gained a following. In the 1980s Phelps adopted a blues sound, taking cues from Delta bluesmen Robert Pete Williams, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Skip James.
Around 1990, while he was experimenting with new sounds, Phelps developed a taste for the acoustic slide guitar. "I wasn't learning slide based on any particular style as much as trying to get new sounds and increase the amount of colors on the palette," he recalled to the Denver Post. "I was looking for a way to get more music to come out of the guitar." Popular with blues musicians, slide guitar originated in the Mississippi Delta region and was a signature style of Robert Johnson and other artists. Players create the instrument's rich, wavering tones by using a tubular finger covering to press and bend the guitar strings over the frets. "[B]ecause [the guitar is] laying in my lap and I'm not holding it up, it feels very free, you know, so I can sit down over it," Phelps told Noah Adams on All Things Considered, a National Public Radio show. "And it's almost not a guitar at all, I think. And it's a piano and it's a drum, and it's odd things."
It wasn't long before Phelps developed a reputation as one of the most dexterous and creative slide guitar players in the United States. He sang as well as played guitar, covering old folk songs and performing his own compositions. Audiences enjoyed watching him pick, slide, and even drum on his guitar during live performances.
In 1995 Phelps released his first album, Lead Me On, which critics praised. The album featured a fusion of folk and blues sounds, and included covers like "Motherless Children" and "Fare Thee Well," as well as six original songs. Over the next four years Phelps released two more albums, Roll Away the Stone in 1997, and Shine Eyed Misted Zen in 1999. Fans were drawn to Phelps's stark, emotive style, and fellow musicians appreciated his finesse with a raw guitar sound.
Shine Eyed Misted Zen, like Phelps's previous albums, featured several traditional songs that the guitarist reworked into his own style. These included the tracks "Goodnight Irene" and "Pretty Polly," two folk classics. Asked how he translated old songs into his own unique style, Phelps told National Public Radio, "First, of course, I have to learn the song, you know, in its basic form.... And then I start creating this sort of movie image in my head of what's happening with the story." With this type of visual imagery, Phelps explained, he made these classic songs his own.
By 2000 Phelps was experimenting with an entirely new style. While he kept a folk sound, he left the blues--including slide guitar-- behind, and performed with a band instead of playing solo. His lyrics spun tales of lost souls and down-and-out characters. His 2001 release, Sky Like a Broken Clock, reminded some listeners of a collection of short stories. Drawing on a rich tradition of folk ballads, Phelps created a lyric-based album touching on themes of displacement, desolation, and transcendence. The album featured bass by Larry Taylor (bassist for Tom Waits), drums by Billy Conway, as well as Tom West on the Hammond organ and David Henry on the cello. Striving for a fresh, live sound, the musicians did not rehearse, and they recorded all of the songs on the first or second take.
"Up until now," Phelps stated on his website in 2001, "I think I allowed myself to develop an approach to music that I couldn't have had I not spent that much time playing solo. But over the last year it became apparent to me that my development was starting to happen more compositionally than as a performer." Sky Like a Broken Clock surprised Phelps's fans with its new sound, but its originality appealed to many listeners. All of the songs were Phelps's own evocative, poetical compositions. "Well, a lot of people seem to be enjoying it, maybe they didn't know what to make of it at first," Phelps told the Ottawa Citizen after the release of Sky. "But, um, it's just one record, you know. Hopefully there'll be a few more and they're not all going to sound the same."
by Wendy Kagan
Kelly Joe Phelps's Career
Played first guitar gigs with local Washington jazz bands, age 17; adopted a blues sound, performed as solo guitarist, 1980s; developed "lap slide guitar" sound, early 1990s; released first album, Lead Me On, 1995; recorded with a band to make folk album Sky Like a Broken Clock, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Lead Me On , Burnside, 1995.
- Roll Away the Stone , Rykodisc, 1997.
- Shine Eyed Misted Zen , Rykodisc, 1999.
- Sky Like a Broken Clock , Rykodisc, 2001.
- With others
- (Greg Brown) Further In , 1996.
- (Greg Brown)Slant 6 Mind , 1997.
- (Tony Furtado) Roll My Blues Away , 1997.
- (Townes Van Zandt)The Highway Kind , 1997.
- Charlotte Gazette, August 2, 2001, p. 1D.
- Denver Post, February 22, 2001, p. F3.
- Ottawa Citizen, November 24, 2001, p. J10.
- Kelly Joe Phelps Official Website, http://www.kellyjoephelps.com (December 13, 2001).
- National Public Radio, All Things Considered, August 11, 2001.