Kelly Joe Phelps, blues guitarist/singer/songwriter, passed away May 31. He was 62.
Phelps grew up in a Washington farming town, hearing country and folk songs. As a youngster in a family of musicians, he learned drums and piano, then began playing guitar at age 12. Drawn to the improvisational nature of jazz, he later moved to Portland and spent 10 years as a bassist, influenced by musicians like Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Shifting his focus to country blues and inspired by Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Roscoe Holcomb, Robert Pete Williams, Blind Blake, Rev. Robert Wilkins, and Dock Boggs, he became a skillful lap-steel slide player and fingerpicker, renowned for simple arrangements and a soulful voice.
His first album, 1994’s Lead Me On, greatly boosted his career as a performer, and was followed by eight more studio albums culminating with 2012’s Brother Sinner And The Whale. In January of ’13, his playing became affected by damage to the ulnar nerve in his right arm and picking hand.
Known as a mercurial music obsessive, Phelps had an enormous following, with devout fans (including guitarists who have posted dozens of song tutorials on Youtube) that included Bill Frisell, Steve Earle, Tim O’Brien, and Jason Isbell.
This article originally appeared in VG’s August 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.