The Song Remains: Kelly Joe Phelps 1959 – 2022

Credit: Johndan Johnson-Eilola

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.


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About Martin Johnson 262 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

5 Comments

  1. I cannot express to you what Kelly Jo meant to me. I saw him in Cleveland & mesmerized the small crowd at Beachland. I also met him & he retreated into his very introverted self. My frothing you are my idol approach did not serve me well… but I immediately saw that I must retreat into his retreat with respect. And that made him all the more special to me. Witnessing the small crowd of reserved tables from my higher bar seat, I rebelled in their astonishment & reverence. No, this was no ordinary performance, as he sat alone on a stool @& his guitar, tapping his feet with passion & sometimes yelping & growling the lyrics, not caring if the audience understand the lexicon. He just wanted the emotion. That he got. And we all understood. It was…yes…iconic…brilliant…& life changing. God forbid anyone tell him that. His humility was…I don’t know…other worldly? It got to the point where the bartender refused to pop a beer cap as not to disturb him. For that he was was Blessed. And got a big tip. My boyfriend at the time was not into it & spent most of the time outside smoking. It was that moment when I knew we were doomed. It was so. We went our separate ways after 3 years. If ya can’t feel Kelly Joe Phelps, then ya can’t feel anything.

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