Kelly Joe Phelps Dead At 62
Kelly Joe Phelps, the celebrated singer-songwriter whose music blurred blues, country, and jazz, has died. His collaborator Steve Dawson confirmed the news in a post to Phelps’ Facebook page, writing that Phelps died “quietly at home in Iowa” on Tuesday. He was 62.
Phelps was born in Washington state and grew up in the farming town of Sumner. His father taught him piano and drums, and at age 12 he took up the guitar. Although he’d picked up country and folk from his dad, his earliest music was inspired by free jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis. He gravitated toward delta blues after hearing players like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert Pete Williams. As quoted in The Guardian, Phelps once explained, “I wanted to figure out a way to improvise like a jazz musician would, but at the same time play a style of music that was more closely linked to folk forms.”
Starting with 1994’s Lead Me On, Phelps released 11 solo albums and a best-of compilation plus more than a dozen other albums in collaboration with figures such as Townes Van Zandt, Jay Farrar, Corrine West, Linda Tillery, and more. In his post announcing Phelps’ death, Dawson wrote, “He was not only a creative and original songwriter, he was one of the deepest and most soulful improvisers I’ve ever seen or heard. His ideas flowed out of him so fluently it was mid-boggling.” As for Phelps’ stylistic evolution, Dawson wrote, “I saw him go from a lap guitar-wielding bluesman to a hardcore troubadour to an Avant-garde improviser to a pretty monstrous flatpicker, banjo frailer, and finally finding some peace and inspiration on bottleneck slide guitar. It was always a wild ride and he never took the easy path.”
Below, read Dawson’s full tribute to Phelps, and check out some music.
Hello friends and fans of Kelly Joe. Steve Dawson here as the admin for this page. At the request of Kelly Joe’s family, I am passing along the heartbreakingly tragic news of Kelly Joe Phelps’ passing on May 31, 2022, quietly at home in Iowa. Like many of you who were anxious to hear if he’d be playing music again, I too wondered if the day would come when I’d get a call from him and in his rascally way tell me he wanted to make another record. I cherish the time I did have with him both on stage and in the studio, working on the Slingshot, Tunesmith, and Brother Sinner albums. I was/am a huge fan of his playing and he influenced me greatly. Getting called to back him up and then to produce albums for him was definitely a highlight of my life. He was not only a creative and original songwriter, he was one of the deepest and most soulful improvisers I’ve ever seen or heard. His ideas flowed out of him so fluently it was mid-boggling. He was so naturally gifted — one night we were at a party after a show and there was an upright bass in the corner. He picked it up, after not having touched that instrument in over 20 years and played it like he’d been playing it every day since then. Then he put it down and laughed about his diminished skills. He was a complicated guy, for sure, and had his demons. The more people wanted him to do something like he used to (lap style guitar comes to mind), the more he wanted to drop it and do something else. I saw him go from a lap guitar-wielding bluesman to a hardcore troubadour to an Avant-garde improviser to a pretty monstrous flatpicker, banjo frailer, and finally finding some peace and inspiration on bottleneck slide guitar. It was always a wild ride and he never took the easy path. He’d drop out of my life for months or years on end and then just magically appear again and we would go back to being brothers in arms. I also know of many people the world over who he touched deeply with his soulful music, incredible lyrics and spectacular guitar playing. If you are one of those people and have photos or stories to share, please do so here on this post. I will not be answering private messages sent to the page, and the family would appreciate their privacy being respected at this time. But let’s all remember the incredible nights and days of music, laughs, ups and downs and the one of a kind genius of Kelly Joe Phelps. I’m sharing some pictures here from recording sessions for Tunesmith Retrofit and Brother Sinner. I don’t have as many as I’d like because we were usually hard at work and would forget to snap photos along the way, but here’s a few I dug up today.