Letters to words to phrases to stories to songs from memories in the mind of Kelly Joe Phelps --By Billy Davis

Kelly Joe Phelps has gained a worldwide reputation as one of the best guitar players of modern times. Much overshadowed by the virtuoso guitar technique is his brilliant lyric writing. In that shadow, the lyrics have a lot to live up to. On his SHINE EYED MISTER ZEN album, Kelly Joe has achieved a level of narration in the tradition of the great story-telling songwriters. He admits, putting his mind's stories to papers has its priorities; honesty and no holds barred emotion. Through the lyrics, it's easy to get to know, but maybe not understand, the real Kelly Joe Phelps. He likes it that way. Here in this interview in May of 2000, Kelly Joe gives us an in-depth look at his songwriting, and unique interpretations of traditional songs on SHINE EYED MISTER ZEN. I'm sure you'll find it obvious that Kelly Joe has a serious spiritual side to his outlook. His experience playing this music is an emotional and magical one. Put on SHINE EYED MR. ZEN and give the words a good hard listen.

THE HOUSE CARPENTER - "I've just returned from the salt, salt sea and it's all for the love of thee." (lyric)

KJP: That's an old folk song that is two or three hundred years old. There is a debate on whether it's a traditional Irish or Scottish song. It was a tune that was carried over on the ships, and it stayed around up in the Appalachians played mostly by banjo players. It's been played as a ballad as well. I am aware that there are a lot of alternate verses depending on the source of the song. But, I used Clarence Ashley's version. He was a banjo player from West Virginia or North Carolina. The reason I got into that song was that I liked the forward motion of the lyrics. It was story song. I was studying those kinds of songs to better my own songwriting abilities in terms of how to propel a story forward. Also, the way that Clarence Ashley plays and sings it, there is a lot of power beyond the lyrics. It pulled me in as well. That's the way it is with a lot of the traditional tunes for me. I play them for two reasons; First: The lyric has something that I can attach myself to. And second; the example of the song I have in my head is a powerful performance. I can borrow something from both of those elements to project some sort of emotional involvement.

RIVER RAT JIMMY "We wrapped our bloody fingers like a shine eyed mister zen."

KJP: These are my memories of a couple of my different friends I had when I was a kid. I ended up forming the song on the two characters named River Rat Jimmy and Jehoshaphat. The character River Rat Jimmy is a combination of two friends of mine. I thought about what we went through growing up and who our examples were -- people around us who we should have been able to get inspiration from and didn't. And what those people were like - the feeling of the town and growing up next to a dirty, muddy, swollen river. I pieced together fragments of memories involving both experience and kind of a backward looking emotional standpoint. Sometimes when I look back on those things, it isn't exact situations that occurred, but an over all feel. It's like an all-encompassing feeling about what it was like to be that age

BD: Was River Rat Jimmy a nickname?

KJP: I didn't use it then but I came up with it later. That was the way of putting a name on this person that represents the general setting. So, that's why I referred to him as a river rat, because we were always on the riverbanks. We would go down to the river almost every day, knocking around, climbing trees, or catching fish. This was the Puyallup river in Sumner Washington.

BD: 'Shine eyed mister zen' seems to be a key phrase in the song.

KJP: That phrase enables me to paint this picture of someone building their own world, or putting up their own walls. I was thinking of being "Shine Eyed" as though being foggy-eyed, or glassy-eyed, or ignorant to everything else around. That's how I felt being a kid. Being caught up in something is like being the center of the world. The "Mister" part is the sensation of being Genghis Khan - or a word representing the feeling of 'all powerful' even though your only 11 or 12 years old. The "Zen" part represents the close proximity to a religious fervor. Some of those things we approached were so serious to us; we were so intent on doing it. This might have involved things like, trying to stay out of the way of someone's Dad, because you knew they were gonna beat the hell out of you. Other times, it meant experiencing things in an otherworldly sort of way. Being with somebody you grow up with, and knowing there are these moments that come up where they will remain special your entire life is something I equate with some sort of religious experience. I thought those four words painted the picture appropriately. But knowing that it probably wasn't gonna be understood that way. I wasn't sure that the idea would translate, but at least it would apply a certain mysticism in my over all attempt.

HOBO'S SON - "Not today might be here tomorrow."

KJP: This is one of the more straightforward songs on the record. It is based again on experience. It has to do with meeting someone you like very much, getting together, then this other person admits what she considers to be a mistake. In this case, the guy couldn't do anything about it; because essentially, 'I can't change what I am.' She goes away, and he realizes and accepts that he has to spend the rest of his life waiting for this thing that he had and couldn't keep a hold of. That's the HOBO'S SON; wanting her more than anybody in the world but knowing he couldn't possibly hold onto it.

KATY - "Sharpened up my razor, picked a piece of ground. One of these dark and moonless nights, be the last around."

KJP: In the interest of wanting to be an honest writer, I wanted to explore different experiences and present them in picture form, so to speak. KATY is somewhat related to HOBO'S SON, although its an entirely different theme. The guy in the story is married with a child and has a fling with this girl. Then he decides in technical terms; 'Kill the bastard' (laughs). He realizes he shouldn't have had this fling and feels bad. The girl he had the fling with, isn't about to let him go or forget about it. She's ready to create any amount of trouble it takes to either get him back, or make him pay. Over the course of time, he ends up with two options. Now mind you, it's about building a story so there are always more options than this (laughs). He gets to the point where there are only two ways to get out of this. He can kill her, or kill himself. He wasn't about to kill her so, in the end he decides to kill himself to keep from causing his family more grief. I guess he is really the crazy one in the end.

BD: I thought there are slight insinuations he may kill everybody involved. The lyric says 'be the last around."

KJP: I think that's all in there, and that's how it ends up a bit vague.

WANDERING AWAY - "Will I shed one more tear for my broken family, and have a glass of whiskey with another friend that has nowhere to be. Get my feet on the road, they feel much better there."

BD: If anything in this song is fictional it still seems very much like YOU.

KJP: Yeah, it is. It feels more direct, because I am speaking from the view of myself. There is a certain metaphorical quality in the other songs, that is not always direct, but this is simple and straightforward. This represents something I have had first hand contact with (laughs).

BD: The line, "All these broken promises in a shoe box full of bones," seems to have some central meaning to the song theme.

KJP: That's another way of saying, 'skeletons in the closet,' or the 'baggage' that you carry around with you - or things I've done in the past, that may not have helped or hindered the situation that I'm in. 'All these broken promises in a shoe box full of bones' is about a person who is feeling sorry for themselves, but thinking back about all the ways they screwed up.

BD: Tell us how the song title came about?

KJP: (Laughs) That ties me in with the Dave Alvin newsletter doesn't it? Well, it was on one of the tours I was doing with Dave and it might have been in Toronto. This the way the tour worked: I opened the show, then we took a break. Dave would go on and play four or five tunes on his own, then he would call me out to back him up on slide guitar. Each night he would work through a rough set list, and decide which song would be last before I would come up, so I could get ready -- like a cue song. So this particular night, Dave walked out and I said, 'Hey what's the song cue?' and he sort of turned half back and said this thing that sounded like 'Wandering Away.' I laughed and thought, 'he doesn't have a song called Wandering Away.' I thought through it and realized he said WANDA AND DUANE. Somehow that stayed with me and I think that night I started putting together that song.

I started putting together a set of lyrics incorporating 'Wandering Away.' The first verse came rather quickly, which is rare for me. I tend to pour over songs bringing words in and out and twisting things around. So, I went home with just that verse. I was thinking of someone in particular and it kept coming back to me. I usually don't write on the road. In fact I wrote one song on the road in my entire career. A song called GO THERE on my Roll Away The Stone album (Rykodisc) I wrote that on tour with BB King. I needed another song for my set and needed something rhythmic. I wrote it for that reason. For some reason writing on the road doesn't work for me.

DOCK BOGGS COUNTRY BLUES - "Just soon as my pocketbook was empty, not a friend on earth could be found."

KJP: Dock Boggs is another banjo player from the Appalachian area. This was a song he was known for. He plays and sings with amazing force. It's very scary sounding and strong. Especially with subject matter that he has, or I'm assuming he has first hand experience with. This song was an inspiration factor in writing KATY. Listening to him do this really got under my skin, and made me start writing with out shying away from a little anger. Also, his approach to his instrument as a banjo player made me re-think things a little bit in terms of approaching the guitar. So, I'm even playing some other songs differently than I did before, especially with my right hand technique.

BD: At what point did this change happen?

KJP: This was around the time I was recording the record. This was one of the last to songs I recorded for the album. The other was CAPMAN BOOTMAN.

CAPMAN BOOTMAN - "Lay it down, horizontal lean, slip a finger across the bar, whip the high note frantic."

KJP: That is a self-portrait. Not having to do with relationships or how I view the world, no goods or bads, just essentially painting a portrait of myself. I've kind of retired the caps; I'm going capless now (laughs).

BD: Explain the line "zen bazooka buddha joe." This must be associated with 'shine eyed mister zen' in RIVER RAT JIMMY.

KJP: Yes it is. 'Zen' showed up again because it fit in both cases. But, if I were paying more attention I wouldn't have used a word twice.

BD: Now wait a second! I love hearing it in both songs because I thought CAPMAN BOOTMAN is the adult version of you in RIVER RAT JIMMY.

KJP: Yes your right. That's great! I hadn't thought of it that way but it is. But anyway, 'Zen' is used again because playing this music is a religious experience for me - trying to find those new notes every night. 'Zen' is the very serious approach to life looking for this creative odd thing all the time. 'Bazooka Buddha Joe,' refers to the bubble gum Joe, meaning that this life is very kid-like. Most people grow up, have families, and buy houses doing typical adult things. Slipping 'Buddha' in there, which in my mind's eye, occupies both spaces because the Buddha character is sort of a grown up kid, but then there is a seriousness to Buddhism too. Joe is just me, or you, or just somebody. The song is trying to say serious-adult-simple-minded-child or somewhere between the two.

TRAIN CARRIED MY GIRL FROM TOWN - "Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Show me a woman that I can trust."

KJP: That's one of the better-known Frank Hutchinson songs. He was a hillbilly who played lap style guitar like me. He did an amazing amount of recording in the twenties and thirties. Doc Watson refers to him as an influence. I did that song because I liked what Frank Hutchinson did as a musician. He played with a lot of integrity, but yet he had a lot of fun with it at the same time. He didn't approach it very seriously and there is something about that I find fascinating.

PIECE BY PIECE - "Hear the bucket hit the bottom and the rope come rolling by."

KJP: The premise for that song is that both my Mom and my Dad come from very large families. I didn't know my uncles and aunts very well, and there are cousins I've never met. So, there have been various points in my life where I've wanted nothing more than to be able to talk to these family members, so they could explain to me why things are this way and what I can do about it. Because the family was that way, we just couldn't get close to one another. So, the premise of this song is a person standing alone, looking for someone to talk to, and asking questions and those people not being there.

BD: What is the 'piece by piece'?

KJP: 'Piece by Piece by lonely piece the mountain side tumbles away,' says that each time this situation arises, where I want some help from somebody, I either can't get it or I wont allow myself to look for it. It's a very indirect piece of writing. It's supposed to represent the sensation of not knowing what to do.

BD: On this song you have another musician playing. You've never had anybody else on any of your albums.

KJP: There is a harmonica player on there who plays with me named Dave Mathis. Before I was traveling, I was just playing around Portland OR doing five or six gigs a week. He was one of the few musicians I've ever played with. In that context, he was someone I really gelled with. There was some magic in there.

During the recording of the album, we recorded 4 or 5 tunes. PIECE BY PIECE was the best of the bunch. I think we might have done a version of WANDERING AWAY together too. When I record my next album in the fall, I'm pretty sure it's not gonna be solo. I think I'm ready to move beyond that. But at the same time it seemed that it took me three records to get the point across. I'm looking to interact with other musicians, but certainly not the band thing; maybe one or two players. I would like to see that happen. I've done it a few times and I think there is good potential for finding music in there that I haven't found yet.

MANY A TIME - "Understand better the weight of the cross. Only believe, thou gonna be saved."

KJP: That is a bit of a carry-over. The Roll Away The Stone album (Rykodisc 1997) was pretty heavily invested in gospel music influence. What I felt wasn't represented through that was, that someone could embrace the notion that the answers won't actually be found, and that studying about it; being a rabbi, or a minister doesn't always provide the answers, It's not such a bad thing. Part of the magic is, knowing that right around the corner there are great things to discover. MANY A TIME is sort of my new version of a gospel song. That's not saying, 'let's grab hands and walk through the clouds.' Maybe it would be nice to be in a cloud (laughs). But, I'm also looking for a rock to hide under too (laughs).

In the end, he is saying, 'I don't know what this means. I thought I did, but maybe I have come to a different decision about it.' Maybe the process of having the answer then finding out you don't, is maybe the answer in of itself. I got very tired of hearing other people say they knew the answers to these questions. So I decided that was BS, and you couldn't possibly know the answers. You may know what you feel about it, but there is no way in hell I'm gonna base something so important on what they believe. On the other hand I don't know what the answers are. But I'm gonna accept the fact that I don't.

BD: Does this mean you are willing to stop looking?

KJP: I wouldn't say I'm willing to stop looking, but instead I'm willing to look in different ways.

GOOD NIGHT IRENE - "Sometimes I have a great notion to jump in the river and drown."

KJP: I started doing this song only because I liked it and I liked Leadbelly. I started playing it and the crowd response was good.

BD: Some people may see the song title on your album and think, why choose such a common song? But I believe you have succeeded in making this a fresh and original rendition. How did you approach it?

KJP: I felt I could get underneath the lyric because it meant something to me. Because of that, I could sing it with a level of conviction that felt honest -- whether or not anyone wanted to hear it. When I started recording the album, that was a song I took out. I was willing to leave it out because it was so common. But someone at the record label liked it and was bothered that I decided not to include it.