Audio & Video
Tabs & Tunings
Reviews & Setlists


This is the former biography from the official website.

Kelly Joe Phelps grew up in a small, blue-collar farming town in the middle of the western half of Washington state. His family life was a musical one - Dad playing the piano, guitar and harmonica; mom playing guitar and fiddle; older brother playing guitar; and all of them singing - influencing both his passion for and love of the art form.

He joined the school band as a drummer during his fifth grade year and continued playing drums throughout his high school years. When Kelly Joe was 12 or 13 years old, he was knocked up-side the head by Jimmy Page's guitar playing on the first two Led Zeppelin records - giving birth to what would become his life's work and study.

His dad handed him the family guitar, taught him a Lightnin' Hopkins riff and a couple of Hank Williams tunes - the next thing you know, Kelly Joe's sleeping with the damned thing.

The rock 'n' roll fascination waned a few years later, upon being exposed to the music of fingerstyle player Chet Atkins. A hometown guitar guru (John Standefer) opened the door for Kelly Joe to gain insight into this style of playing. Shortly thereafter it was days and days and days of wearing the records out at 16RPM, dropping the needle in until the record started skipping, figuring out notes and chords and fingerings ... then he's not only sleeping with the guitar, he's cooking it breakfast.

Then came the looser, more intense players - Leo Kottke, John Fahey and Bert Jansch. These players exposed Kelly Joe to a new harmonic and rhythmic sensibility; a folk music form with serious implications. Bert, in particular, exemplified an intricate balance of control and chaos, weaving complex counterpoint between guitar and voice (which was to play an important part in Kelly Joe's future developments). Leo paved the way for beautifully mangled guitar bashing, 'Vaseline Machine Gun' and all.

The next step was the result of repeated listenings to an illegally appropriated Miles Davis record, 'Seven Steps To Heaven'. Not being aware of it at the time, improvisation was to be one of the main determining factors in what Kelly Joe's music would become. Inch by inch, idea by idea, jazz becomes less of a beautiful mystery and more of a determined religion. Haunting jazz clubs and stalking musicians turned into a seedy trenchcoat affair, whereby Kelly Joe found himself a bass player in the local be-bop scene.

Bass players worked more than guitar players in the trio and quartet settings that were prevalent and his desire to play far exceeded any instrumental consideration. Thus began the heady experience of digesting players like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon et all. He became entirely consumed, sold his guitars, spent the money on jazz records and a bass amp, tore the passenger seat out of a '72 Toyota Corolla (so he could fit the amp in), and bought a charity shop suit jacket.

This is also where he learned that musical styles come with intense, dogmatic traditional practices that precede and dictate to varying degrees the language of the given form - and that the end requirement will always be "one's particular voice becoming a link in the chain".

Toward the latter half of this roughly ten-year period, he found himself drifting toward the players considered "avant-garde" or "free" - Ornette Coleman being his primary iconoclastic ideal, to further absorb the life of an improviser. Stylistic barriers started becoming invisible. The gigs became a whirlwind of players bouncing against one another like superballs, flipping against the ceiling and crashing into the floor covered with peanut shells and losing lottery tickets.

By the time Kelly Joe opened his eyes he was hearing the hum of the refrigerator as music and listening to A.M. radio only at night because he could get two or three radio stations in tune simultaneously. Then he disappeared. For weeks. One morning he was found in an alley reading Fantastic Four comics books through binoculars turned backwards and eating spam and corn-nut sandwiches. It was time for re-construction.

He started looking for the hedge in which he'd left his anchor. He found it beside Fred McDowell's tractor garage. Acquiring another guitar and replacing the seat in his car, he was at it again. Here was a music, he surmised, that combined the best of improvised music with the purity of folk music. A person could travel to exotic lands on a plane that never left the ground and served great meals. It also offered intense leg room. Robert Pete Williams, Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson, Joe Callicott; these became immediate teachers. Then came the fun, something he'd been missing; playing hop-scotch with Doc Watson and Robert Pete; fishing with Roscoe Holcomb and Skip; going to church with Blind Willie and John Coltrane; watching the world series with Ornette Coleman and Dock Boggs. He took to applying all of this information to the slide guitar laying flat in his lap (a carnival accident had rendered his left wrist impotent) and set out with a 3x5 index card listing all the café's in his immediate area that offered gigs for tips and free meals. This is where he taught himself to sing. Kelly Joe thought that if he gave it all he had, risking the flattened face of a parked car chaser, he would find out whether singing was something he could do or not. He still isn't convinced but (as he says), "it's far too late to turn back now."

Hundreds of gigs and bloodied fingers led up to his first recording for Burnside Records, an independent label based in Portland, Oregon. 'Lead Me On' was released in June 1994, representing a recording session that was to set up the Kelly Joe Phelps standard for recording practice: "close your eyes and play".

Fortunately, this cd was embraced by the musical community at large, allowing Kelly Joe his first touring opportunities. Radio stations KCRW in Los Angeles and WXPN in Philadelphia invited him in their studios to perform, increasing his audience base further. Word began to spread.

Kelly Joe signed to Rykodisc in 1997, releasing his second record 'Roll Away The Stone'. It won high praise, both nationally and internationally, and set him off for tours throughout Europe, Australia and Canada. He performed on national radio shows; 'Prairie Home Companion' in the States; the BBC in the UK, as well as national broadcasts in Holland and Belgium. He appeared on the covers of both 'Acoustic Guitar' and 'Folk Roots' magazine. He drank many different versions of strange, stale coffee - some of which was instant.

1999 saw the release of his second Rykodisc record, 'Shine Eyed Mister Zen' and his first tour of Japan. The audience continues to grow and support - from blue-rinse cane racers to elbow-padded university professors to fat-shoed skater vagabonds.

The future remains a mystery, as it should.

(New Biography at the official website)


  Website by Jean-François G.
Background Image by Michael Bystrom
Design mostly stolen to SLSY
top of page top