Kelly Joe Phelps

Honest Blues

No Fret: Kelly Joe Phelps plays dobro style, strumming and plucking.

Photo by Chris Strother

Kelly Joe Phelps: Seeker with a bottleneck slide

By Gretchen Giles

THE PRESS has been making much about the fact that the newest blues sensation to hit the club circuit is really just a white guy from Washington state. Though his silvery slide guitar–played dobro style across his lap–and his low smoky voice combine to elicit thoughts of sultry, Delta, after-church Sundays spent waiting on the porch for supper to cook, Kelly Joe Phelps is more of the flannels of the Northwest than the chitlins of the South.

Moreover, Phelps is singularly unimpressed by all the hype. In fact, his greatest hope as a musician is to get old. Really old.

“Sometimes you think that you’re telling the truth, and you find that you’re really not,” says the soft-spoken 37-year-old musician by phone from his Vancouver, Wash., home. Noting that his belief is that increasing age tends to increase one’s ability to be honest, Phelps cites the work of country blues master Fred McDowell as the artist whose music persuaded him six years ago to switch from jazz to blues. “It seems so succinct, what he does. He is very folk-oriented, but there’s a lot of improvisation going on. His music is also plainly visceral, very tied into the earth, very pure and straighforward, and the considerations all seem to be in lyric and expression.

“It’s stripped away of all youthful ambitions.”

In the Phelps lexicon, youthful ambitions get smack in the way of telling the truth, and it is truth-telling that means the most. “What I mean by that is being willing and able to lay myself completely out and on the line,” he says. “The things that I think about, including the inconsistencies: who I am as a person. Being able to put myself out fully, so that if there are some areas that I don’t understand about myself, that’s going to show too.”

Produced in 1994, Phelps’ last album, Lead Me On (Burnside), is composed of 13 songs, six of which are originals. This seductive, quiet disc pulls the listener into a world of traditional beauty, evoking the kind of cross-legged intimacy that comes from floor-sitting silently next to a singer. He’ll be headlining Nov. 23 in the angel’s share of the Mark West Winery on the last Full Moon Blues show of the season.

“People respond when someone is giving straight from the heart,” Phelps says. “I’ve tried to maintain that as well as I can, but I don’t feel that I’ve reached into uncomfortable areas; they seem to have come for reasons that I can’t pin down.”

Born to a Seventh Day Adventist household where music was a prime pastime, Phelps grew up playing piano, switching to guitar as a teen. Seduced by the free exchange of ideas exemplified in the playing of such jazz artists as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, Phelps made a living playing combos around the Pacific Northwest, picking up teaching gigs here and there. Then he really heard the country blues.

“For me, it’s the same thing,” Phelps says of the two musical styles. “I went through this period when I playing nothing but jazz. I found that the interactive creativity was a big drawing card for me. The way that you put your instrument in your hands and get right into something inside you, trying to get some sort of musical conversation going. That’s one of the most beautiful things in music, because that’s the way that I get to experience the power of the music almost the same way as the audience does. It’s the sense of hearing something for the first time–we all end up sharing something which is different than if I just wrote songs and played them the same way every time.

“It’s very demanding to have to create something new every time.”

But it is through his solo career that Phelps has been able to get to the heart of his work. “When I play by myself, I stand a better chance of being honest,” he says. “With someone else, you’re sort of battling it out, trying to meet in the middle. It’s beautiful–but it’s much different.”

Fighting repetition, Phelps refuses to perform by rote, still struggling to create a conversation with the audience that is meaningful to both. “I keep it fresh by keeping the structure of an individual song very loose,” he says. “The way I play on [Lead Me On]–you’ll never hear that again. The songs stay roughly the same; those are things that I use as the outline or a blueprint. I try to keep the foundational things of a song as unthought-out as possible.”

Kelly Joe Phelps headlines the Full Moon Blues show on Saturday, Nov. 23, at 8 p.m. Guitarist Rusty Zinn opens. Mark West Winery, 7010 Trenton-Healdsburg Road, Forestville. Tickets are $15. 544-4813.

From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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