Kelly Joe Phelps Waxes Lyrical

Acclaimed Blues Guitarist Headlines Latest Tales from the Tavern Concert

Kelly Joe Phelps
Anthony Saint James

For a songwriter who embraces such an intricate, delicate, and flowing vocabulary, it is hard to imagine Kelly Joe Phelps ever being caught short of words. But such was the inspiration behind the Portland-based songwriter’s forthcoming instrumental undertaking. As the album will no doubt reaffirm, Phelps’s picturesque prose is not the only captivating element in his musical arsenal. His genre-straddling guitar style has flavored the seven albums he has released while influencing the works of Townes Van Zandt, Bo Ramsey, Greg Brown, Jay Farrar, and Paul Curreri. But rest assured, when Phelps plays Tales from the Tavern at the Maverick next Wednesday night, he will be armed with both his slide guitar and his book of lyrics, and will surely present a night of musical soul bearing.

You began your career as a country and folk artist, but now your sound tends to lean more toward Southern jazz and blues. What forces have influenced this musical evolution? I guess that just comes down to the constant search for some kind of inspiration or idea. Sometimes that comes from recorded music and certain styles, sometimes it comes from the life that I’ve led, and sometimes it comes from people I meet. So it’s never really concrete. I have been playing guitar for a very long time, but every now and then I find myself being fascinated by or attracted to something that I wasn’t prior to that.

What attracts you to a certain style or sound? I start to listen to it more and it starts to seep into what I do. I often find particular musicians within a genre who I like and just keep putting the pieces together little by little like that, and [then I] try to make sense out of it as to how it will apply to my own creative direction.

While you’re renowned for your guitar work, another aspect of your music that tends to stand out is lyrical content. At what point did you discover the weight of words? I think that started taking shape back in 1999. I started paying a lot more attention to writers and poets and how they were using words to create textures and feelings. I started thinking that I ought to try writing lyrics not as a songwriter necessarily, but more as a word-writer and see if I could figure out a way to unify them, and that started a process that I’m still on. I feel like it’s going to be a lifelong thing. It’s one of those things, like playing the guitar, where you never really stop learning how to be more effective.

Lyrically speaking, what is the one greatest lesson you’ve learned? That sometimes it’s more about which words you leave out.

Are you more comfortable writing from the point of view of an observer or from firsthand experience? More often it has to do with something I’m experiencing. Sometimes I write songs about things I am witnessing, but more accurately it’s kind of like creating an out-of-body approach, where I’m trying to stand outside of myself to watch what is happening within my own life.

Considering both your guitar style and your lyrics are so assertive, how does the songwriting process typically start? It starts with the words. That’s my entry into a song and the only one that seems to work for me. It’s always a long process, because in order to do that I don’t think about music. I just try to write in more of a poetry form and that way I can run with ideas and let the words play out and let them go in the way they want to. And once I get all that stuff on paper, it may or may not become a song-most of them don’t. But the ones that do tend to start from there.

Your last album, Tunesmith Retrofit, came out in 2006. What do you have in store for us next? Well, oddly enough, especially in relation to the conversation we are currently having, I ended up recording an instrumental album this summer. [Laughs.] And that’s coming out in March. I have never done that before, and I didn’t expect to do it either. I just started recording stuff that I was enjoying and that followed into a record that was quite surprising to me.

Given the degree of emphasis you put on lyrics, what led you down the instrumental path? I haven’t been writing much in the way of lyrics during the last couple of years. I’ve been writing a lot of poetry, but I haven’t found the usual inspiration in terms of lyrics. It felt like I was hitting at it too hard, so I have left it alone for a while, but I missed the act of creativity in relation to music. When I was learning to play, I just loved sitting in a room and playing for hour after hour. So, late last spring, I just decided to sit in the chair and play the guitar and not think about anything else. And I followed that all the way through.


Kelly Joe Phelps will headline this month’s Tales from the Tavern concert series at the Maverick Saloon (3687 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez) this Wednesday, December 10, at 7 p.m. For more information, call 686-4785 or visit


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