If Kelly Joe Phelps can be said to have been backsliding on his religious education in the last while, he’s now slipping forward with his latest album, Brother Sinner and the Whale.
“I guess you have to ask whether one stops being a Christian, and in my case, it’s not as though I did,” Phelps explains over the phone from Vancouver, where he awaits the beginning of the tour that will bring him to Edmonton on Saturday. “I guess I just realized at some point that I would be a fool not to look with serious intent at the history of Christianity and Judaism, and try to honestly figure things out from a believer’s point of view.”
Chalk it up to the acclaimed guitarist (sideman to Townes Van Zandt and Jay Farrar, among many others) and singer-songwriter’s later-in-life fascination with his religious roots, particularly the writings of the Desert Fathers. These first- and second-century monks and ascetics were important to the ongoing evolution of Christianity, primary sources for much of the theological underpinnings of both Protestantism and Catholicism.
Deep stuff, but not so far from what Phelps knew as a slide guitar prodigy steeped in the gospel-blues. The rock-ribbed, unyielding sentiments to be found in early desert sermons are also present in, for example, the music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, so by the time he began thinking about a followup to 2009’s Western Bell it seemed a natural fit. Writing within a musical tradition that boasts such titans as the Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Willie Johnson wasn’t particularly hard for Phelps, who was mindful that he wasn’t attempting to compete so much as add his own testimony.
“The only hard thing was embracing it more than anything,” he says. “Whenever I focused on fundamental truths I wouldn’t run out of ideas, but as soon as I thought that maybe I should be writing about other things, I was staring at a wall immediately. It somehow crystallized in a short period of time. As long as my focus was on rudimentary things like forgiveness, mercy, or grace, then the sky was open and blue.”
So there was never a moment when it felt like he was edging in on musical turf that shouldn’t be messed with?
“I guess I never stopped to think about it, and maybe that was a survival instinct of sorts,” he admits. “I mean, I thought about people like Reverend Gary Davis, but I thought in terms of them being inspired by what they did. It wasn’t as though I was overly concerned about having to live up to something. I suppose I was in a good place because I knew full well that what I was writing and singing about was true, that it was a true experience and true process for me.”
Brother Sinner and the Whale is as direct a statement as Phelps has ever made, but it doesn’t fall completely into overly reverent tradition. There are lots of gorgeous moments involving Phelps’s shimmering, bottleneck guitar and almost affectless singing. But what hooks you in is a narrative as old as civilization: the pilgrim on a path.
The song titles tell a linear, at times sombre, at times jubilant story, from opener Talking to Jehova through to Hard Times They Never Go Away and finishing with Brother Pilgrim. Not exactly the kind of fuzzy, warm sentiments you often find in much of the shopping-mall-approved Christian music these days, but Phelps wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I don’t know how anyone can take anything away from that syrupy music. There’s no traction in it, nothing that feels like it comes from the heart. No complexity. I just think about reading the Psalms, and about how so many of the people in them deal with being angry with God, fighting it out, engaging with it. That’s what I wanted to get into. I mean, you read this stuff and you think ‘What in the world are you thinking? This is the god of creation!’ Still, it’s what makes the Bible so much more alive and interesting.”