Kelly Joe Phelps, the celebrated singer and guitarist whose music traversed blues, country and jazz, has died aged 62. A post on his Facebook page said he died “quietly at home in Iowa”.
Born in Washington state, Phelps was raised in a musical family and first trained as a jazz musician, but broadened his playing after being inspired by artists such as Mississippi Fred McDowell. “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,” he explained.
His debut album, Lead Me On, was released in 1994 and has endured, earning millions of streams. With spartan arrangements that put Phelps’s skilful slide guitar and earnest, soulful voice to the fore, it is much admired and appears in The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings.
He moved to the Rykodisc label for 1997’s Roll Away the Stone and released nine further 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 paying tribute was country star Jason Isbell, who wrote: “His beautiful music was certainly an influence and he was a kind man and generous with his time.” Folk-pop singer John Smith said Phelps was a “guitarist and shaman who could put a whole crowd into a trance and leave them wondering what the hell happened. Just a beautiful, magical artist.”
Phelps’ producer Steve Dawson described a mercurial and hugely talented musician: “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.”