While Seattle is known worldwide as being a musical Mecca of sorts, and places such as Bellingham and Anacortes get their fair share of attention when it comes to the music communities they’ve nurtured, places a little smaller and further removed from the hype are also responsible for contributing in a big way to this region’s musical legacy.
Take tiny Ravensdale, Wash., for instance, which happens to be the wee hamlet from which powerhouse performer and songwriter Brandi Carlisle originally sprang. Indeed, much has been made over the years of the little girl with the big voice and talent who hailed from a cabin in the woods in the wilds of Washington.
However, a short drive away, the slightly larger city of Sumner, Wash. can lay claim to an enviable musical talent all its own, in the form of country bluesman Kelly Joe Phelps.
Although Phelps no longer calls Sumner home, it was there that he first learned to scratch the musical itch that would lead to a lifelong—and somewhat unorthodox—musical career. His parents both played music—for their own enjoyment rather than for an audience—and it was under their roof that Phelps first picked up a guitar and began to decode its many mysteries.
Until this point, Phelps’ story—that of small-town boy from a musical family who took what he learned at home and brought it to a larger audience—is hardly unusual. But Phelps has never been one to follow anyone else’s playbook, and, as such, the distance between where he began and where he’s ended up has involved taking a road slightly less traveled than what you might imagine.
After leaving Sumner for the bigger, brighter music scenes of Seattle and Portland, Phelps put down his guitar in favor of picking up the bass, and for years made a name for himself as an innovative and proficient free-form jazz player. But his guitar was never far from his side, and as his acclaim as a bassist grew, he continued to monkey around with the guitar, probably not even realizing that one day he would hear an album that would serve as the catalyzing event for changing his entire musical destiny.
That album was by classical acoustic bluesman Mississippi Fred MacDowell, and it’s not overly dramatic to say that when he heard it, Phelps’ life was forever changed. Instead of carving out a future as a jazz bassist with a guitar habit he indulged on the side, Phelps turned the sole focus of his attention toward taking his jazz sensibilities and applying them to country blues via the slide guitar.
It was a fortuitous change of direction. As a blues guitarist (both slide and otherwise), Phelps has proven his is an original talent—even in a genre where there’s nothing new under the sun. Blending his improvisational jazz style with the stricter folk tradition of country blues, and melding all that with a surprisingly deft touch as a lyricist, has seen Phelps truly come into his own, in his own way.
It’s easy to see this singularity of style and substance on display when Phelps plays live—as he does more than 200 times a year, on average. Generally speaking, he takes the stage without a set list, preferring to read audiences in order to best determine how to entertain them on a night by night, town by town basis. From his dazzling fingerpicking to his gritty songs featuring protagonists as world-weary as they are god-fearing, it’s easy to see both the respected jazzman and the small-town boy wrapped into one complex and intensely compelling musical package.
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