Kelly Joe Phelps:

The Phantom Monk of Folk-Blues

By Terry Roland

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In 1995, I had the pleasure of spending an evening with Townes Van Zandt at McCabe's Guitar Store in Santa Monica. There was a certain magic that night, watching this old troubadour still hanging on to his life, singing off key, sometimes rambling, but always conjuring up the image of an old blues singer sitting on his front porch, sipping whiskey and telling stories in song. That same night a young, clean-cut musician from Portland, Oregon, ambled out and proceeded to do what so many young blues musicians do: he played his heart out. He was in his 30s but sounded like he was centuries old. That night he performed the nearly forgotten genre of blues spirituals. He was like an angel holding court with one of the true saints of the surviving wild-eyed, whiskey-driven singer-songwriter movement slowing fading away into an alcoholic mortality. Kelly Joe Phelps was like a witness to a passing, fading comet as it seemed inevitable that Van Zandt was in his final years. But, just by his presence, Phelps assured us all that the music would endure - as it always does. That night he sat in on the encore The Banks of the Ohio, and Phelps hesitated to start, just quietly sitting there. Eventually, Van Zandt looked over at him and said, "Man, are you playing?" Phelps looked up and with all humility said, "I was listening to you, man!" It was a moment of continuity and grace.

Troubadours like Kelly Joe Phelps seem to have treaded a thousand rivers of blues to find the right waters for their sound. If the blues are many rivers flowing into one sea, Phelps has certainly followed more than one of them. His beginnings in music were the blue jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Phelps soon found the country blues of Fred McDowell and Robert Pete Williams. He followed this stream to learn lap slide guitar and a distinctive finger-picking style sounding eerily close to Townes Van Zandt. The same can be said of his songwriting ability. Phelps has his own voice, but it's true listening comfort to find strands of the river of music we call Townes Van Zandt running through his work. I can't help but wonder if the muse that flowed between them that night at McCabe's came to reside in the core of the music of Kelly Jo Phelps.

His first album, Lead Me On, enhanced Phelps' love for the lap slide guitar and the brooding, gospel-based Delta blues with a simple one-man acoustic approach. Future recordings, like Slingshot Professionals, found him enlarging his musical travels with more acoustic instruments. Listening to each recording released between 1995 to 2006, something rare for any artist begins to happen. Each album builds on the other, developing a distinct style that is drawn from such influences as early Bruce Cockburn, Bruce Springsteen (of Nebraska fame), Lyle Lovett, and Leo Kottke.

His picking style, while derived from early urban blues, familiar to the era of Piedmont and even with some ragtime influence, he also brings a 1950s-era jazz feel into his structure and arrangements, allowing enough space for the music to breathe and create a life of its own. The pitfall here is the danger of genre hopping. However, Phelps manages to learn the lessons of the style and then bring them into his own work. Unlike many other artists in this genre, he doesn't seek to imitate, re-create, or even preserve so much as bring to bring a new vision to the music.

This approach complements both the artist and the music. The earliest roots of blues provided a soil rich enough to be adapted to many forms. Phelps is inventive and imaginative enough to be able to take other styles like country, folk, and jazz and merge them with his own artistic voice, creating a unique sound, both original and universal. So, as he continues to add to the style mix, each album changes into a distinctive sound that is all his own, beginning from his early jazz roots to his most recent folk-based blend.

His vocal style draws from most of the classic roots artists of the past, but his phrasing is most closely compared to Ry Cooder. He has a casual drawl that suggests Mississippi more than Portland. His voice becomes an instrument equal to his guitars, crafted carefully to bring focus to the songs.

His 2006 album, Songsmith Retrograde, is his transition into a gentle folk-ballad sound that could easily pass for early Celtic but then has those jazz-blues sounds around its edges. Crows Nest opens the album with a contemplative invitation to join him on his troubadour's journey. The instrumentals lean on his past blues picking style but add a fine folk melody with the complexities. Lyrically, these songs bring into focus little pieces of the life around us that sometimes go unnoticed, filled with well-worn trails, crying babies, shoestrings on a nether wind, old men whining, and so many illustrative threads that run through our lives.

Of the many pleasures of Retrograde, what stands out is Phelp's use of the banjo, which he bends into a Celtic, blues instrument that goes against the usual ironic cheerful bluegrass sound into a near apocalyptic haunt of some folksinger's nightmare. Red Light Nickel brings us to a midnight shanty feel, an unusual use for a banjo. This song is a testament to his creativity and imagination.

So, if you're willing to take a ride down the many rivers traveled by Kelly Joe Phelps, it will be a reminder of how rewarding the journey is, even though as this vital artist continues to grow, the destination remains a mystery.

As I listen to his music, the ghost of the Texas troubadour, Townes Van Zandt, still seems to be out there smiling, laughing, singing along, and maybe, just falling silent for a moment or two at the majesty of the music he hears from his lap slide playing partner... as Kelly Joe Phelps did that long ago night in Santa Monica.

Kelly Joe Phelps will perform on Sunday, December 14 at McCabe's in Santa Monica, 7:30pm. The address is 3101 Pico Blvd. Santa Monica. Phone: 310-828-4497 or visit www.mccabes.com for ticket information.

If people are going to like me, they'll just have to like me with my glasses on." - Buddy Holly

Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say 'dude' at an early age.