Living Inside the Music.
Since his 1994 debut release (Burnside Records’ “Lead Me On”), Kelly Joe Phelps has been cutting a clear and singular path through what is often referred to as Acoustic Blues, or Country Blues. The roots of his “traditional style’ reach wide and extend far, informing all of America’s folk-music styles: Old-Time Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Jazz. Inside KJP`s music you can hear the lineage and elements each of these musical styles have always shared. His genius is for getting underneath genres and climbing into the music itself, where the sound lives.
His influences go back to a time before music got segregated into genres. ‘Musicians played music, not styles, and they were open to inspiration from any source possible. They all shared with and taught one another. Making music meant making music true, living inside the sound of it, rather than it’s clothing.’ Kelly Joe inhabits his music.Applying his singular vision to both slide and straight guitars, and blessed with just the right amount of dust in his voice, KJP’s music made itself known quickly. A brilliant finger stylist who once made a living as a jazz bass player, he’s developed a distinctive folk music hybrid. He maneuvers with rare gentleness and deftness between traditional Country Blues modes and seamlessly moves in an out of astonishing improvisations in the spirit of great jazz artists.
Within two years of his first CD release he’d recorded with Townes Van Zandt, toured twice supporting B.B. King, wound up on the cover of Acoustic Guitar magazine, and signed to famed producer Rick Rubin’s American Records label. Acoustic Guitar magazine went on to call him one of 15 Artists Of The Decade, alongside such luminaries as Ry Cooder, Beck, and Gillian Welch.
In 1997 Kelly Joe signed with the label Rykodisc (known for being the first cd-only record label, and releasing Frank Zappa’s entire catologue). He released five albums for them:three highly regarded solo records, one trio record featuring Tom Waits’ bass player and Morphine’s drummer, and one full band record including American jazz artist Bill Frisell and Canadian string band Zubot and Dawson.
His musical vision expanded, record after record, incorporating an ever-broadeningunderstanding of the creative and boundless potentials within every American folk-music form. When the Ryko contract expired in 2005, Kelly Joe took the opportunity to record three records in succession, highlighting the breadth of his vision: “Tunesmith Retrofit,” (a nod to the wandering troubador), “Western Bell,” (the most free, wild, focused yet exploratory example of instrumental fingerstyle guitar since the late ‘60’s recordings of John Fahey), and 2012’s “Brother Sinner & The Whale,” (a dive in to the world of traditional gospel/blues, ala Blind Willie Johnson or Son House pulled up to modern times).
Other highly respected musicians have also taken note of this visionary. Along with B.B. King’s two invitations to have Kelly Joe on the bill, Lucinda Williams and Madeline Peyroux have had him as a touring partner. While some may be tempted to genre-box him within the camp of traditional, Acoustic Blues, the above eclectic examples make talk of genre irrelevant. Kelly Joe is focused on and driven to make ‘rightful music with pure intent’, art with no artifice.