June/July 2000

Folk Improv!

Kelly Joe Phelps first came to the attention of music fans beyond the Pacific Northwest with the release of his album Roll Away the Stone [Rykodisc] in 1997. (His first album, Lead Me On, released by Burnside Records in 1994, is an excellent piece of work that didn’t exactly make it to everyone’s neighborhood record store.) Roll Away the Stone evoked an immediate and overwhelming upbeat response from both music critics and fans who follow folk, blues, and the rootsier side of country and rock. Phelps’ lap slide guitar wizardry immediately caught the attention of guitar afficianados, and his ear-catching voice - a dusky, well-worn thing - has the sort of visceral appeal that stays with a listener.

Phelps, a resident of Vancouver, Washington, followed Roll Away The Stone with his second Rykodisc release, Shine Eyed Mister Zen, in 1999. The CMJ review of this CD noted: “Phelps plays with the tender prowess and soul-soothing magic of a man twice his age, surrounding the listener with intricate music, backwoods lyrical gloom and warmly evocative vocals.” Mr. Zen did a great deal to solidify Phelps’ reputation as a unique musician and songwriter. He’s building a repertoire that finds inspiration in country blues, traditional music, gospel, bluegrass, rock, and jazz. This multitude of voices comes together in Phelps’ music in an understated and wholly fluent fashion, giving him a sound that is both familiar and rarefied.

Phelps’ musical odyssey bean in the farm country of western Washington in the midst of a very tuneful family. When the music bug got to him, he started behind the drums. As a teenager, an encounter with Jimmy Page’s guitar playing prompted Phelps to take up the instrument. After the usual romance with rock music, he entered his twentysomething years and became intrigued with jazz. “I was drawn to the improvisational thing jazz players were doing,” Phelps explained. “Initially, I was listening to some of the standard jazz guitar players, but not understanding what they were doing at all. I was just trying to pick out stuff off their records. Guys like Joe Pass and George Van Eps. I was studying them, but not from the point of improvising. That started my fascination with the music in general; that, and meeting musicians who were actually playing jazz.

“At that point it wasn’t the guitar that mattered; it was just to get into that music,” he continued. “If it had come to it, I would’ve done it on trumpet or trombone, or anything. I just wanted to play that music. The bass was an obvious choice, because I already knew how to play stringed instruments. Gigs for bass players were easier to come by, so I switched to bass.”

Jazz has been a particularly crucial training ground during Phelps’ musical coming-of-age. Fans who have not had the chance to catch him in concert may not be aware of the role improvisation plays in his music. If you listen to the tracks on his albums and then you go to hear him in concert, you’ll soon realize that the songs you heard on the CDs didn’t exactly happen the same way in concert. They never do.

Phelps invested a good deal of time in jazz, playing for about a decade in Washington and Oregon. Then he dropped out. “I kind of stopped, but I kind of moved forward, as well. When I first got into jazz, I was playing all that standard material, you know, bebop tunes, Charlie Parker tunes - the usual hundreds of songs that jazz guys play. The more I got into the freer side of that music, the less I was attached to the more straight-ahead stuff. Once that freedom was laid down, I was able to borrow from lots of different influences.

“What happened was that I found myself wanting to play in an improvised manner, but a more folk kind of music,” Phelps continued. “I grew up listening to country music with my mom and dad, and I always liked certain aspects of that music. And, of course, I was always into guys like Leo Kottke and Chet Atkins.”

These varied impulses initially led Phelps into confusion about what he was doing. He decided to kick back, put the jazz playing aside, and sort out where he was at musically. “I was listening to country blues players, and I basically just started over, picking stuff out off their records, note by note.”
Phelps jazz years laid the groundwork for his return to the guitar and to folk music (folk in the broadest sense of the term, as he pointed out). He realized that what he had wanted to do all along was improvise in a folk/blues context, but it took jazz to teach him the spontaneity he lacked. What Phelps eventually learned was how to use his musical vocabulary to initiate, or hold up his end of, a musical dialogue.

Phelps’ affinity for country and folk music, overlaid by his years playing jazz, has given him a musical breadth that is manifest in his work to date and very much a reflection of the way in which he approaches writing and performing. “Keith Jarrett is a prime example of someone who, in the end, is just playing music,” Phelps explained. “All the beautiful things about music come out when Jarrett plays. Ornette Coleman is someone else who just blows me away. In a way, Coleman’s doing very odd country music. The way that he handles melody and stuff just isn’t that be-boppy, do-dah stuff. The purity of his melody choices, no matter what direction he goes, were so unusual. I feel the same way about Don Cherry and Charlie Hayden. I mean, those guys were like a bluegrass band,” he laughed.
The eclecticism that is a hallmark of Phelps’ music was evident on his debut album and his first Rykodisc CD, and it caused a bit of scrambling among music critics. Blues writers seem to have been the first to pick up on Roll Away the Stone, and their vociferous praise led many fans to the erroneous conclusion that Phelps was a stone blues player. While it’s difficult to compare him to anyone else, living or dead, there is a spirit and a breadth to his music that resembles that if Huddie Ledbetter. Phelps has one foot firmly planted in folk and the other planted wherever.

“The country blues players have been both an inspiration and an example,” Phelps said, “but I don’t think of myself as being a blues player. I think when I first set the guitar on my lap and started playing slide, I toyed with the idea that I would play blues music. After a while, however, it just became more and more obvious that blues was just a set of sounds and emotions that I identified with and wanted to include in what I did. The fact is that from the first time I picked up a guitar, I never considered playing in a style. I just wanted to find the music.”

When Phelps is sitting on stage, guitar in his lap, slide in his hand, he presents a bluesy sort of image. He spends a lot of time playing guitar in that style - like a Dobro player works his or her instrument. According to Phelps, the legendary bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell has something to do with his playing style.

“When I started listening to Fred McDowell, and I was trying to figure out his slide guitar stuff, I initially tried playing the guitar bottleneck style. That was sort of working, sort of not. But there were a couple of things going on with that. For one thing, I’d been listening to Derek Bailey quite a bit, which had me wondering what else I could do with the guitar that I’m not doing with it yet, to get some other sounds out of it. That’s when I threw it in my lap and started using different things as slides and tuning the guitar in odd ways. I picked up a couple of lap steels to continue the process.

“Learning that Fred McDowell slide guitar style, I discovered that playing the guitar in my lap just felt better,” Phelps added. “I use a solid steel bar, like a Dobro player, and that, combined with the strings being raised up off the fingerboard, gives me a very rich tone. I also realised that playing lap-style gave me a lot more freedom in terms of using the slide. I can pick different combinations of strings, that is, different combinations of open strings and strings using the slide bar. The compromise was that I couldn’t use my left hand to fret notes, but that seemed like an easy trade-off, considering what I could do with the slide that I couldn’t do playing bottleneck.”

When Phelps returned to the guitar, in the wake of his fabled jazz years, and began the process of building the sound that his fans are familiar with now, he also had to face another imperative: “It was obvious that I was gonna have to sing.” Phelps’ improvisational instincts did not lead him to embark on the path of an instrumentalist like, say, Leo Kottke. Instead, he wanted to pursue his guitar stylings within the framework of a song structure that included lyrics. “When I decided to move in the direction in which I’ve gone, it was apparent that I was going to have to sing. The only other options were playing instrumental guitar, which was gonna be insane, or playing with a singer, which seemed like a cop-out. It was kind of a do-or-die situation. Because I’d never done it before, I was scared to death. It was kind of like taking your clothes off in front of an audience.

“You know, I used to play guitar solo at gigs - just instrumentals - and I felt like as long as there was something between me and who was listening, I was safe,” he laughed. “The singing thing, however, makes you feel like you’ve jumped out in front of your guitar. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t wanna be here,’ you know.”

Phelps’ approach to singing was initially informed mainly by high anxiety. This was one thing that the decade of jazz had not prepared him for, and he was, at best, a reluctant vocalist. It was surprising to hear this from him, given the fact that critics have bee quick to praise his vocal style. He has warmed to the task, however, in the last couple of years.

“I’m intensely glad that I’m singing,” he admitted. “I just thoroughly enjoy it. Now it feels like it’s just part of the package. A lot of times I describe the singing thing as if it was the seventh string on the guitar. You know, sometimes at a gig I have to describe what I want to the sound engineer, because a lot of times they do the typical mix where the voice is way out front and the guitar is buried. But I tell them that my approach is to weave my vocals into the guitar, so when they’re setting their levels, I tell them not to get the voice too far out in front of the guitar. When I think of it that way, it’s almost as if I’m not actually singing. Maybe that’s what I’ve created as my own little safety net - you know, I’m not really singing,” he chuckled.

“I really do feel my voice has integrated itself into a sound,” he continued. “It’s almost like I’m not doing anything - not singing, not playing the guitar, just making this noise.”
Phelps’ game plan has been about instrumental improvisation, not vocal improv. Whether he’s playing original material or covering other artists’ tunes, Phelps doesn’t routinely change the words every time he performs a song. Rather, the lyrics provide a framework around which he builds an instrumental dialogue that varies from performance to performance. “It’s the same with the recording process,” Phelps noted. “That’s something that surprises some people. I talk about improvising all the time, and I think a lot of folks who come see me now are used to that idea and expect it. How I played the song before I recorded it was different than how I played the song when I recorded it, and when I do the song in concert it’s gonna be different again.”

For Phelps, it’s the lyrics on which he hangs whatever happens instrumentally. “The blueprint of my songs is always there in the lyrics,” Phelps said. “But I’ve never actually sat down and composed a song all the way through.”

In a way, Phelps is still working in a jazz-like pattern. If you think of the lyrics of his songs as melodic lines, then, in a sense, he’s still improvising on a theme. He’s certainly not as free-form as, say, Medeski, Martin and Wood, but he has given himself a certain freedom within the framework. “There is this body of material that I use,” Phelps said. “I don’t use set lists when I do a concert, but I have 40 or 50 songs and I pick and choose as I go. I give myself the freedom to decide how I’m going to interpret a song on a given night. The lyric is my anchor.”

With three albums to his credit in five years’ time, Kelly Joe Phelps is both a veteran recording artist and a singer/songwriter who is still exploring the possibilities offered by his musical skills. Most recently, he has contributed two songs to the soundtrack of the film Condo Painting. Still in his 30’s, Phelps figures to be sitting around with his guitar in his lap, working tunes, for many more years, which is good news for everyone who’s gotten into what he’s doing.