Kelly Joe Phelps, the famous singer and guitarist whose music spanned blues, country and jazz, has died aged 62. A post on his Facebook page said he died “quietly at his home in Iowa.”
Born in Washington State, Phelps was raised in a musical family and was initially trained as a jazz musician, but expanded his playing after being inspired by artists such as Mississippi’s Fred McDowell. “I wanted to find a way to improvise like a jazz musician would, but at the same time play a style of music more closely related to folk forms,” he explained.
Her debut album, Lead Me On, was released in 1994 and has endured, earning millions of streams. With spartan arrangements that showcase Phelps’ deft slide guitar and serious, soulful vocals, it is widely admired and appears on The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings.
He joined the Rykodisc label for Roll Away the Stone in 1997 and released nine more albums, ending with Brother Sinner and the Whale in 2012. Later in his career, Phelps suffered from a nerve disorder in his right arm.
Among those who paid tribute was country star Jason Isbell, who wrote, “His beautiful music was certainly an influence and he was a kind and generous man of his time.” Folk-pop singer John Smith said Phelps was a “guitarist and shaman who could put an entire crowd in a trance and leave them wondering what happened. Just a beautiful, magical performer.
Phelps’ producer Steve Dawson described a mercurial and hugely talented musician: “I’ve seen him go from a guitar-wielding bluesman to a hardcore troubadour to a cutting-edge improviser to a pretty monstrous flatpicker, a frail banjo, and finally finding some peace and inspiration on the bottlenecked slide guitar. It was always a wild ride and he never took the easy road.