By Daniel Kohn
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When you listen to the blues of Kelly Joe Phelps—intoned with his spooky, bottleneck guitar and gravelly, barely-above-a-murmur voice—you're transported to the Mississippi delta, land of the real, gritty, painful shit, served up by black men like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Hell, on his second album, Phelps plays a detuned 12-string during a cover of Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" that's both haunting and beautiful. And his own "Katy"—a tormenting tale of suicide off his new disc, Shine Eyed Mister Zen—is as harrowing as anything the great Robert Johnson ever did.
Funny thing, though: Phelps has spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest, growing up in Sumner, Washington, then moving down the road to Portland, Oregon. And his first musical love was jazz, not the blues.
He also happens to be white.
So how did someone with his genes and background become so immersed in country blues? And aren't the blues best left in the hands of the music's black originators?
Talking with Phelps, you get the sense the subject has been broached before.
"That's an understandable question," he responded. "The debate, I suppose, is ultimately won or lost on how the music sounds. It ought to rise above color. You should be able to close your eyes and just listen to the song. It's either good or it isn't, period.
"[The delta blues] were predominantly born of the poor black experience, but even that's not a complete picture," he added. "There were also poor whites in the South, as well as mixed races. It disgusts me when people say music is good or bad based solely on one's race. That's just as ignorant as any other form of racism."
Phelps, 41, grew up in a working-class family in which music was a part of daily life. They listened to a lot of country and western music together. His dad played guitar and piano, his mom the violin, his brother the guitar. The Phelpses were a close family, despite tough times. They sang together practically every day, Kelly Joe said, because he saw "a lot of pain in my parents, who used the power of music as a healing force."
His formal musical odyssey began as a drummer in his high school marching band. After graduation, he spent 10 years playing mainly bass guitar in improvisational jazz groups. But he grew tired of bebop and avant-garde stylings and began dabbling in other musical forms—mainly bluegrass, country and folk. But it was the blues that resonated most deeply.
"It felt like a very natural step, musically. I didn't make a blatant decision to try out this particular style of music," he said. "I think the only strange thing is that it does feel so natural to me. I have this affinity for the delta blues, but why I do is really hard to say."
Certainly one explanation is the influence of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Phelps practically wet his pants after hearing the late bottleneck guitarist's album Long Way From Home, which he calls "a pure, visceral form of expression, like none I'd ever heard before."
Phelps soon settled on playing acoustic slide—dobro style, on his lap—performing initially in Portland-area bars and coffeehouses for meals and tips. Between gigs, he soaked up more of the music's roots, listening to beat-up records by Robert Pete Williams, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie Johnson and Jack Owens, among others.
At the same time, his other musical influences—from Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis to Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke to a variety of gospel music—worked their way into what was becoming a unique mélange of styles.
The promising singer/songwriter/guitarist signed with Portland indie label Burnside, which released his 1995 debut, Lead Me On. Some critical praise and opening slots for B.B. King, Dave Alvin and Chris Smither followed, leading to a new deal with Rick Rubin's American Recordings. The label folded soon afterward, but Phelps was quickly picked up by Rykodisc, which has released his subsequent CDs, 1997's Roll Away the Stone and the recent Shine Eyed Mister Zen.
While Phelps draws thematically from the standard (and frequently abused) blues wells of sin and salvation, he also taps into a hard-to-define spirituality that is neither righteous nor dogmatic. In his versions of such traditionals as "Jesus Make up My Dying Bed," "When the Roll Is Called up Yonder" and "Doxology," Phelps looks inward, rather than to the heavens, for divine inspiration.
"There's no evangelism behind what I do," he asserted. "I've studied theology and all that stuff, but honestly, I don't really understand it. That deep, otherworldly feeling—or spirit—comes through best for me musically. When I play these spirituals, or something like Leadbelly's 'Goodnight Irene,' emotions pour through me that transcend the physicalness of the here and now. Now that's mystical—know what I mean?"
That muse is also behind the title of his latest album. "The idea of Shine Eyed Mister Zen is the attempt to portray feelings or experiences that sweep your feet completely out from under you," Phelps said. "Kinda like where you're focusing on one point or thing so overwhelmingly that time doesn't really exist anymore. For example, when you experience the birth of a child or love at first sight. Or even someone smacked-out on heroin—it can be any range of emotions, positive or negative. Anything that offers total absorption opens the door to that transcendent place."Whoa. Break on through, Kelly Joe. Kelly Joe Phelps at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, 28062 Forbes Rd., Laguna Niguel, (949) 364-5270. Nov. 22, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. $15.