It's not every guitar icon that turns away from the idolatry his mastery inspires. Eric Clapton has tried to play up his singing and songwriting, with mixed results, ever since the 1974 release of 461 Ocean Blvd. For Kelly Joe Phelps, the evolution from venerated picker to respected singer-songwriter has been gradual and organic, and arguably more successful than old Slowhand's.
When the Washington state native first garnered widespread attention with the release of his 1997 Rykodisc debut, Roll Away the Stone, it was indeed for his remarkable guitar playing. In 2000, Acoustic Guitar magazine, noting the impact of his mastery on the lap-style 6- and 12-sting slide guitar and conventional 6-string acoustic, wrote, "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."
With last week's release of his fourth full-length Ryko CD, Slingshot Professionals, Phelps, who performs Monday, March 24 at the Little Fox Theater in Redwood City, has so thoroughly crossed over into the territory of Tom Waits and J.J. Cale, a new listener would be forgiven for overlooking his subtle and nearly sublimated guitar wizardry altogether. For the first time on record, Phelps not only concentrates fully on his fingerpicking, and couches his sly songs in his fullest arrangements to date, he also turns over the slide duties to Steve Dawson (of the Vancouver band Zubot and Dawson) and shares the guitar spotlight with eclectic-guitar hero Bill Frisell on two tracks.
Phelps didn't start recording until he was in his early 30s, releasing his 1994 debut, Lead Me On, on Portland's Burnside label. He'd been a modern-jazz hound, steeped in Miles Davis, John Coltrane and free improvisation, until he fell under the sway of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Pete Williams, Skip James and others around 1989. Undergoing something akin to a full-immersion baptism, he unleashed his improvisational passions on such country and folk-blues classics as "Hard Time Killing Floor," "Motherless Children," "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" and "Goodnight Irene."
On his first two Ryko recordings, Phelps kept pretty much to himself. He mixed original songs in with old blues and folk tunes, growing more assertive with his smoky voice, but his phenomenal guitar dexterity commanded the lion's share of attention. On 2001's Sky Like a Broken Clock, however, he jettisoned the traditional covers in favor of an all-Phelps program and brought in a bass player (Canned Heat and Tom Waits veteran Larry Taylor) and a drummer (Morphine's Billy Conway).
Slingshot Professionals goes even further. In addition to Frisell and Dawson, the 10-song album features fiddler/mandolinist Jesse Zubot, Bay Area drummer Scott Amendola, bassists Andrew Downing and Keith Lowe, organist/accordionist/pianist Chris Gestrin and harmony vocalist Petra Haden. The sessions, in Seattle and Toronto, were produced by Berkeley's Lee Townsend, known for his work with guitarists Frisell, John Scofield and Charlie Hunter, drummer Joey Baron and many others.
The songs on Slingshot Professionals, often complex bundles of images and story lines, mark Phelps' most dramatic departure from his recording roots, although blues forms do crop up here and there. "I'm in a place again where it seems my ears are opening up, which is sometimes hard to come by," Phelps said in a phone conversation last week from his hotel room in Portland, Maine, a month or so into his current tour. Playing with new musicians has everything to do with it, he adds. "Performing solo, I choose to cover a lot of ground with the guitar," Phelps explains. "Adding any other musician, especially a guitar player, really frees me up to interact. I sort of play less but go different places on the fingerboard. The interacting thing is the biggest joy right now."
If collaboration has come slowly to Phelps (he did make guest appearances on singer-songwriter Greg Brown's Further In, banjo player/guitarist Tony Furtado's Roll My Blues Away and the late Townes Van Zandt's The Highway Kind), so did singing and songwriting. "I just took a head dive into singing about 12 years ago," he explains. "I knew I wanted to do that, and felt I had to. I'm comfortable with it now. I figured out a way to bring up the most natural sounding thing rather than a cultivated sound. I still don't think of myself as a singer so much as somebody who has learned to make sounds with his voice, hopefully in tune."
It's songwriting that consumes Phelps now. He has cultivated personal methodologies that bear some elaboration. One involves improvising with poetry. "I'll sit down without an idea in mind and kind of start pounding on the keys," he explains, "and then hopefully something will click. Maybe I'll grab a couple of words that will spur a couple more words, and then I've grabbed hold of a character and start fleshing that out. Another way is writing what are kind of like short stories, but they could also be perceived as an introduction to a play, maybe. I end up with these situations and/or people that will sometimes jump out of the page, and I can start rewriting and editing and reworking it into a song lyric I can deal with."
Sometimes, poetic fragments and turns of phrase come too fast for Phelps to put to immediate use, so he stashes them away. "It's almost like a frenzy," he says. "I'm grabbing them and stuffing them in and not even looking at them until later. Then I'll put two things out that seem like they don't go together until I realize why they do. Once I discovered my feel for that, I simultaneously discovered that there is a way I have of thinking about things, or looking at things. And it is very much like stuffing all these images in a box.
"It's so much fun," Phelps adds. "I feel very fortunate that I've stumbled onto this thing I love. I didn't know that any of this was going to happen, but once I found myself doing it, I discovered this thing I love that I never knew I did, which is the magic in words."
Phelps definitely hasn't dulled the guitar chops that led one British observer to find in his playing "the Celtic fingerstyle acrobatics of Martin Simpson, the '60s modal intensity of Bert Jansch and touches of John Fahey weirdness," or that prompted Acoustic Guitar magazine to describe his musical territory as the place "where the harmonic seeking of jazz meets the musical world of the Harry Smith Anthology."
But more than ever, his playing serves a larger purpose. "My notion of what a song should be is always in a form of development," he says, "and I'm really just beginning to work it out. "