Kelly Joe Phelps reinvented country blues for the 21St Century americana audience.
Guitarist and singer-songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps “died quietly at home in Iowa” on May 31, 2022, according to his Facebook page. While this low-key announcement may have been in keeping with this unassuming musician, it barely hints at what a phenomenal musician he was. To anyone with a passing awareness of the man and his music, he is generally thought of as a blues musician but this simple classification does his music a great injustice. Also, how often is that a modern-day bluesman has his obituary published in The Guardian or is claimed as an influence by someone of the musical standing of Jason Isbell?
Kelly Joe Phelps was born in Sumner, Washington, a farming community, on October 5th 1959. He had a musical childhood, listening to country and folk music, and playing drums and piano before taking up the guitar when he was twelve. However, when it was time to make a career as a professional musician his first port of call was as a jazz bass player having been inspired by the holy trinity of Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Playing jazz for ten years may explain how he was able to bring a new slant to the country blues of such artists as Mississippi Fred McDowell. He released his debut album, ‘Lead Me On’, in 1995, and immediately ears pricked up, because while the music was very clearly influenced by the country blues of the ‘20s, it didn’t sound like musical archaeology but rather, it was a modern and different take on the music.
There followed a steady flow of albums over the years until 2012’s ‘Brother Sinner and the Whale’ with its modern take on country and blues gospel music. Kelly Joe Phelps was not only a great guitarist and singer but an adept songwriter whose songs blended seamlessly with his blues and folk covers. One criticism of modern-day blues music is that it can sound samey and can become a little monotonous, but this was not the case with Phelps’ music. He recorded solo, with a band, and he even had Bill Frisell guest on his recorded and live music, including 2003’s ‘Slingshot Professionals’. In 2006 he again brought his unique take on roots music with his use of the banjo on ‘Tunesmith Retrofit’, which was as innovative as his guitar work, and didn’t simply copy existing bluegrass-related banjo styles. With 2009’s ‘Western Bell’ he managed to bring an avant-garde influence, first hinted at by his love of the music of Ornette Coleman, to his music. Looking backwards for innovation, his final album, ‘Brother Sinner and the Whale’, was recorded in mono and included songs inspired by the Old Testament.
Not only did Kelly Joe Phelps keep the flame of country blues alive, but he also produced a virtually flawless catalogue of songs and albums that showed remarkable variety while still being true to the country, blues, and folk music that inspired him in his childhood. His love of jazz allowed him to bring his own modern take to a musical tradition that was captured at the start of recorded music, and whose roots are lost in the mists of time and the horrors of slavery. Kelly Joe Phelps’ music celebrated and enhanced this great tradition.