(Artists of the Decade feature in Acoustic Guitar's Tenth Anniversary Collector's Edition issue)

By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
July 2000

Up from the Roots, Out on a Limb

EVERYWHERE KELLY JOE PHELPS HAS gone in the past six years, he's left behind a trail of guitarists with wide eyes, shaking heads, and jaws bruised from hitting the floor. He hasn't done this with hot licks or tricks, although he can fingerpick or whip around a slide guitar as well as anyone. Phelps does something far more rare: he goes deep into that zone where all master musicians go (he calls it becoming a "shine eyed mister zen") and unearths songs that grow and change with each performance. Along the way he takes alarming risks - reharmonizing, revamping the melody, making up whole songs on the spot, knocking his forehead against the mic if the moment requires a kickdrum sound - and delivers extravagant rewards.

What initially drew attention to Phelps was his state-of-the-art slide guitar, accomplished on a regular flattop modified for lap-style playing. Drawing on his free-jazz background, he moved quickly past the traditional blues vocabulary, though in a way that tapped into the spirit of the old masters much more than note-perfect re-creations ever do. As the decade progressed, he did the same with his nonslide playing (eventually settling on C G C G C F as his standard tuning), while his singing and songwriting grew ever more nuanced and haunting. He also found himself in demand as a sideman, adding his slide touch to albums by Greg Brown, Tim O'Brien, Tony Furtado and others. Recent projects underscore Phelps' compatibility with many musical worlds: he performed with Bert Jansch in a documentary on the British folk icon, and was featured alongside Sonic Youth, Tom Waits, Philip Glass, and others on the soundtrack to the film Condo Painting; meanwhile, Phelps' tour itinerary took him to the roots mecca Merlefest and the experimental mecca Knitting Factory.

Shine on, mister zen.