Kelly Joe Phelps' uses emotion, originality, improvisation and a smoky whisper of a voice to spark his fine acoustic playing 

Music in the Moment

Ever since Kelly Joe Phelps' dad showed him a few country songs on the guitar when he was 12, the instrument has been a serious and evolving source of music for him. Now, at 41, an acclaimed country blues and folk player with gigs in the States and Europe, Phelps fondly remembers those early days of musical introduction.

"I was so intrigued by the guitar," Phelps says, "he could have showed me anything."

Phelps quickly moved to the acoustic side of Jimmy Page, until Chet Atkins, Leo Kottke and Bert Jansch caught his ear. Learning these players' licks kept him happy for awhile. But once he discovered music theory and Miles Davis, improvisation became the key and it's still the cornerstone of Phelps' performing style, a style he brings to Ashland Coffee & Tea on Thursday, April 12.

"[Improvisation] threw me off the deep end," he recalls by phone from his home in Vancouver, Wash. Phelps picked up the bass, and for 10 years he gigged in jazz bands around Portland, Ore. But this too wore thin.

"After awhile…some of it left me dry. I had to step back," he says.

After taking some time off, Phelps discovered the country blues of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Using McDowell and other blues players as guides, Phelps and his six-string again headed out on his musical continuum.

"From that point forward…it wasn't starting over," he says. "It opened my mind up to a whole different musical commitment."

Using emotion, originality, improvisation and a smoky whisper of a voice to spark his fine acoustic playing, Phelps' performances are pure examples of music-in-the-moment. Even an old standard such as "Goodnight Irene" becomes Phelps' own.

"Music has always been a serious endeavor for me," he says with a laugh. "All those intangibles play a part. There are a lot of variables… even in [one] song."


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