September 1999

Talking country blues

KELLY JOE PHELPS plays the slide guitar lap-style, and makes music like you've never heard. But as Jon Jordan found out, there's more to his sound than a slide and six strings.....

When he starts to play, you have to sit up and listen. It's partly down to Kelly Joe Phelps' characteristic style. Laying the guitar face up, he plays with a solid slide held between thumb and forefingers. But more than this, he uses the guitar as a percussive tool, banging it to maintain an offbeat, while playing the strings the capo to add to his palate. His vocal style is peculiar too. If anyone sings 'slide guitar style' it's him. Kelly Joe Phelps is more than just a guitarist; he's a musician and entertainer. And his secret is that despite playing that most traditional of instruments, the slide guitar, he plays it for 1999.

"It's not 1929 so how can you be authentic?" he laughs. "I'm not an authentic Mr. Blues." Instead the secret of his success is that he's prepared to do what he feels is best for now. Watching a recent live performance, it was only a few songs into the set before he switched styles and started to play a regular guitar. Even the king of slide has more than one string to his bow.

"Each night I start out with the slide and at some point I'll pick up the regular guitar," he explains. "If it feels like it wants to be played then I'll play a handful of songs on it. But sometimes I'll put it back after two." This could be because of the way the venue sounds or because the audience seems to be full of slide lovers, but it's clear that Kelly Joe is confident enough to follow where his music leads.

"I try to let the music do what it wants," he says, casually. "I just play the guitar and sing. Sometimes it can be magical, sometimes it can be a bore." It's unlikely any of his audience will agree with the latter though. And if he sometimes disappoints them by putting down the slide, it's only because the regular guitar is a crucial part of his routine.

"When I practice, 90% of the time it's on the straight guitar," he says. "One reason is because I'm striving to play the normal guitar as comfortably as I can." That's despite the fact he's been playing for close to 30 years. "Then, when I play the slide, it feels fresh."

His music is built on solid technique. "I think it's a bit weird that more guitar players don't want to play it well," he muses. The same level of dedication is applied to his singing as well.

"Although I haven't been singing nearly as long as I've been playing the guitar, I do everything I can to understand how to sing better," says Kelly Joe. And listening to his latest album, 'Shine Eyed Mister Zen', there are some songs in which his voice becomes almost abstract.

"At those moments, I'm using my voice as an instrument," he says. "I'm using it more like another guitar string, another part of the guitar." And this is the heart of his extraordinary sound. Not only does his guitar technique give him the freedom to go where he wants to go, his voice meshes with it seamlessly. It would be tempting to say he's the complete article, but that's not something he would agree with.

"Occasionally, I feel trapped by technique and that's one of the constant battles with anything that you are pursuing," he says. "Many times it feels like I'm playing the same old stuff and I don't want to."

This is the reason he never writes, and certainly never follows, a set-list.

"I've tried them a few times but they never work," he complains. "A gig isn't like an interview. To me it's like sitting down over a beer and talking. There's nothing to work out ahead of time." Which accounts for the natural feel of his shows. Not only are no two shows the same, but he thinks no two songs are ever played the same way either.

Even if he worked out and studied the songs, memorising every note, it would never have the same feel, he explains. And while many musicians say this about their live performances, the same is true for his albums too. 'Shine Eyed Mister Zen', like his two previous albums, was recorded at home with all the tracks recorded in single takes. Even the meaning of the title relates to Kelly Joe's way of playing.

"It's when a person is so caught up in any experience that nothing else exists at that moment. At that moment you become a shine eyed mister zen," he says. "I felt like it was a good way to describe the sensation of playing the music," he recalls.

Get a copy and you might find that it describes the experience of listening accurately as well.