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Blues and country slide guitar ace Kelly Joe Phelps dies at 62

Kelly Joe Phelps
(Image credit: Tabatha Fireman/Redferns)

Kelly Joe Phelps, a musician praised for his slide guitar playing, has died at the age of 62, it has been confirmed.

Steve Dawson, Phelps' friend, producer and fellow musician announced the news on the late guitarist's Facebook page (opens in new tab) on Thursday (June 2), at the request of Phelps' 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,” he added. “His ideas flowed out of him so fluently it was mind-boggling.”

“He was so naturally gifted – one night we were at a party after a show and there was an upright bass in the corner. He picked it up, after not having touched that instrument in over 20 years and played it like he'd been playing it every day since then. Then he put it down and laughed about his diminished skills.”

Born in Washington state, Phelps took up the guitar aged 12, and was inspired by both country and folk as a result of his father and free jazz artists, including Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis.

He was thereafter influenced by delta blues after hearing the likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert Pete Williams. “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 once told The Guardian (opens in new tab).

Phelps penned 11 studio albums over the course of his career, starting with Lead Me On in 1994. That album, and those that came after, put Phelps' formidable slide guitar chops on display, most notably on tracks like Lead Me On, Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues and I've Been Converted.

In his tribute post, Steve Dawson remembered seeing Phelps 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,” he said.

Phelps last studio album was Brother Sinner & The Whale, which arrived in 2012 via Black Hen Music.

Several notable musicians have come forth with tributes to Phelps, including country guitarist Jason Isbell, who remembers him as a “kind man” who was “generous with his time”. Folk pop singer John Smith called him a “shaman” who “could pick up a guitar and put us in touch with something much bigger than ourselves”.

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Sam is a Staff Writer at Guitar World, also creating content for Total Guitar, Guitarist and Guitar Player. He has well over 15 years of guitar playing under his belt, as well as a degree in Music Technology (Mixing and Mastering). He's a metalhead through and through, but has a thorough appreciation for all genres of music. In his spare time, Sam creates point-of-view guitar lesson videos on YouTube under the name Sightline Guitar (opens in new tab).