Blues and folk guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps dies aged 62

Kelly Joe Phelps
(Image credit: Paul Bergen/Redferns)

It has been confirmed that American musician Kelly Joe Phelps passed away on 31 May, age 62. His friend, producer, fellow musician and the admin for his Facebook page, Steve Dawson announced the sad news yesterday (2 June) and played tribute to a remarkable blues and folk guitar player, vocalist and songwriting talent. 

"At the request of Kelly Joe’s family, I am passing along the heartbreakingly tragic news of Kelly Joe Phelps’ passing on May 31, 2022, quietly at home in Iowa," Dawson wrote. 

"He was not only a creative and original songwriter, he was one of the deepest and most soulful improvisers I’ve ever seen or heard," Dawson added. "His ideas flowed out of him so fluently it was mid-boggling."

Phelps's last studio album was a decade ago with 2012's Brother Sinner And The Whale. It forms part of a legacy alongside seminal '90s albums Shine-Eyed Mr Zen and Roll Away The Stone. Alongside mesmerising live performances that has been cited as a key influence on the work of fellow roots musicians including John Smith and Martin Harley.

He was some kind of shaman

John Smith

"His show at the Jazz Cafe in Camden, almost 19 years ago to the day, was the heaviest and most intense musical live experience I’ve ever had," wrote Smith in tribute after hearing the news of Phelps's passing. "One of the most important nights of my life, truly. He was some kind of shaman. I think he was a communicator of the divine. I don’t believe in god necessarily but he could pick up a guitar and put us in touch with something much bigger than ourselves. His way with the guitar meant that time and space went sideways: the whole audience entered a trance.

"I loved him, worshipped him more than a little, felt his influence in every single show I’ve played since that night. I was grateful for the friendship we shared over the years. He would write to me out of the blue to offer encouragement: his kindness has emboldened and helped me in moments of doubt. I was lucky to know him."

Phelps's virtuosity as a musician cannot be overstated, moving from lap steel to six-string flattop acoustic and banjo as his artistic instincts dictated, often in spite of audience expectations. 

"He was a complicated guy, for sure, and had his demons," noted Dawson. "The more people wanted him to do something like he used to (lap style guitar comes to mind), the more he wanted to drop it and do something else. 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."

I believe it takes bravery to make music this personal

Martin Harley

Alongside John Smith, Martin Harley was another UK musician in attendance at Phelps's Camden show and has often cited Phelps's impact on his music. Last year he chose the 1999 album Shine-Eyed Mr Zen for us as one of the key blues records of his life. "The voice that he gives the slide guitar was arresting to me when I first heard it. There's nothing primitive about it, but there's nothing pretentious or showy either. This album had a prolific effect on the way I play guitar and how I perform live. 

"His singing voice is just as honest, smokey, exciting and otherworldly as his guitar playing. Having seen numerous live shows, I can honestly say I've never heard him play the same song the same way twice. I believe it takes bravery to make music this personal."

Phelps will hopefully remembered by more and more people in years to come as not just one of the finest slide and Americana fingerstyle guitarists to have emerged in the last 50 years, but a rare multi-faceted musician with a unique take on blues and folk. 

Interview: Kelly Joe Phelps on slide guitar

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.