With his 1994 debut Lead Me On (Burnside), Kelly Joe Phelps made his mark as a solo performer with smoky, heartfelt vocals; a signature slide guitar sound; and folk- and blues-based material that he recast and reimagined to make his own. Phelps carved out a special niche for his music by singing while playing an acoustic guitar set up with high action to facilitate his intricate lap-style slide playing. During the course of his next few albums for Rykodisc, Phelps’s songwriting skills blossomed. As the songs took center stage, his slide guitar’s role became less prominent and Phelps experimented with a fuller sound, adding guitarists Bill Frisell and Steve Dawson, bassist Keith Lowe, and violinist Jesse Zubot, among others, to his recordings. There came a point when he stopped playing slide, concentrating more on his fingerstyle guitar playing. After making the instrumental album Western Bell (Black Hen) in 2009 Phelps went through a period of soul searching and writing that resulted in his current release Brother Sinner and the Whale (Black Hen). Stylistically and lyrically, the music is gospel based, the lyrics laced with religious imagery, and to the delight of slide guitar fans, his National Style O and bronze bottleneck slide are right up front. I talked to Phelps about what inspired his new album and some of the new techniques that have reinvigorated his slide playing.
You haven’t put out a new recording for a few years. Is this gospel direction something you’ve been working on?
PHELPS: I didn’t really set out to write a gospel album, it just sort of happened. The songs all came back to back. I started working on the stuff that became the record around the first part of January 2012, and we recorded in early April 2012. I had the material in my hands in two months. I found myself in a place, in a vein, and when I tried to step outside of that, thinking I needed to do something else along with it, all the action stopped. As soon as I slid back into that vein, it started again. It felt like I had a lot of ideas. I felt fairly fearless about it—there were so many ideas floating around, lyrically and thematically, the sensation was that I needed to grab all this while it was coming and not even concern myself with “Am I gonna make a gospel record?” or even if this stuff is any good. It was happening for a lot of reasons, so I just let it come.
What drives your writing process?
PHELPS: Imagery first. A lot of my lyric writing has been kind of obtuse. I had images or stories in my head, but I would paint them abstractly. This time I didn’t want that. I wanted to lay it out straight so people could see what it is. And I didn’t want to stop and think too long, because I had so many images coming I wanted to keep going and get some momentum. Then, maybe I could go back and get obtuse again later, but that kept dropping away.
Were you focused on religious imagery the whole time you were writing this album?
PHELPS: I was, absolutely. Not shying away from that helped me keep it straightforward. On this record all the decisions were conscious. I’ve been doing a lot of reading, research, and talking and thinking and praying— almost solid for the last year and a half, so those questions like “Why do I choose to suffer?” didn’t just show up as I was writing. They were questions I was carrying. It wasn’t like I woke up and decided to do a gospel record. It was more like the work I was doing was the prep work, so when the time came all I had to do was get it down on paper.
Fans of your slide playing will be glad to hear you’ve picked it up again. Why did you give it up for a time?
PHELPS: The reason I put the lap-style down is fairly simple. I just lost interest in it. My first record came out in ’94 but I’d been playing that style since ’91. I loved it for the time I did it, but I started to get bored with it. My whole thing for the 40 years I’ve been playing is that I enjoy learning. Even when I was a teenager and I would figure out a Chet Atkins tune, I loved learning the tune and being able to play it, but I didn’t really want to keep playing the tune. I just loved figuring things out. Sometimes a learning process like that only takes a year or two, sometimes it takes ten. I started playing the slide in 1991 and essentially put it down in 2001 and that’s a pretty long time to be trying to play guitar with only one way to get the notes out. And I gave it everything I had during that time.
It seemed perfectly organic to me, both that I applied myself so intently to it and that I came to the end of it. I found things that I love in there. And I realized there are a lot of things I wish I could do but can’t, because of the limitations of that approach to playing. What I was looking at was continuing to do this only because people like to hear it, but I didn’t want to do that. The dishonesty of that is what stopped me. And musically, I was just tired of it.
What rekindled your interest?
PHELPS: I think the simple answer is that I missed the sensation and the sound of a slide, and I figured I’d been away from it long enough that maybe I’d feel positive about it again. So, when I started working on this new material, I got out my lap slide and thought I’d write some songs with it, but after about three days I realized, “I don’t want to do this! What am I going to do now?” I’d monkeyed around with the bottleneck style but hadn’t really applied myself to it. I had built up this thing in my head that maybe I wouldn’t be good at it. But I remembered when I started the lap thing it wasn’t all that easy either. I worked really hard at it and got to a good place. So I thought, “I can do that again.”
What is attractive to you about the bottleneck-style slide?
PHELPS: The more I’ve played around with it, I’ve realized that the limitations I felt with lapstyle slide just aren’t there. I started realizing how many more ways there are to use a slide and your fingers at the same time, like fretting behind the slide. You can do melodic and chordal things that way. That was the start of this world opening up to me.
There are things about it in my head that I’m working on at home that I can’t do well enough to put into performance yet, but little things are showing up. For example, I use the slide on my little finger and it’s a fairly heavy bronze slide. If I roll my hand over just a little bit across the fingerboard and get the bottom part of the bar away from the strings and use just the tip of it, I can work it like a dobro bar, playing single notes with open strings on either side. But it’s really hard! A tiny movement can make or break it—it’s a real tricky thing.
The opening lick in “Talkin’ to Jehovah” sounds like it includes some of your new techniques.
PHELPS: This is one of those things I’ve been working on with the combination of fretting and slide [Example 1]. I slide up to the third fret on the top two strings [measure 4], and I do this lick with the index finger fretting the second fret and first fret, with the slide sliding up to the third fret on the third string [measure 7]. There’s a pull-off with the slide, and then I grab the fourth string with the second finger, then back to the third string sliding five, three.
If I’m going to do a lot of fretting and slide at the same time, the big thing I’m working on is to not let the slide bar come away from the string. Keeping it close when you’re not using it makes it easier to drop it in. The bar itself is fairly heavy and if you get too far away from the string you’re not going to be able to get back in time. And the weight of the bar can cause it to slam against the string and make noise, but if you keep it nice and tight and close it really helps your touch. It helps if you imagine what your finger feels like touching the string rather than your slide bar.
PHELPS: It’s a cool sound [Example 2]. I’m using that open second string as a kind of rhythm [rhythmic drone], almost like you use the fifth string on a banjo. And when I go down to the sixth and fourth string pair I move the open string down to the third, picking it with my middle finger.
You mentioned the banjo. Do you play the banjo?
PHELPS: I do some. I’ve got a couple of banjos at home. A couple of records ago I put some banjo songs on it. Some of it seeps into my guitar playing, not so much from a technical place of trying to borrow something from the banjo but just from hearing that sound. I put the drone sound up on the first or second string, kind of upside-down banjo, taking the fifth-string sound and inverting it.
“Hope in the Lord to Provide” has a pianolike gospel sound in the harmony.
PHELPS: It’s just moving from the IV chord, melodically back to the I [Example 3]. I invert the chord to get that gospel kind of sound. I’m using the harmony string pairs to get the voice-leading melody.
A lot of the time you damp with your fingers behind the slide, but I notice in this passage you seem to be lifting your fingers up.
PHELPS: When I slide up to the chord I lift my damping fingers to make it ring more. It makes the slide chord blend in with the ringing of the melody line instead of getting choked off. You get these funny overtones. That’s one of the reasons I just use microphones now, because that’s the kind of thing that doesn’t sound the same using pickups.
In “Spit Me Out of the Whale” you’re fretting behind the slide a lot. Tell me more about that.
PHELPS: [Example 4a] This is a funny backwards way of thinking about it, but if you’re playing without the slide in open G and you barre at the fifth fret you’re making a C chord. You can suspend that chord by touching the second string at the sixth fret [Example 4b]. But in this tuning, I can catch that same note behind the slide on the first string at fret three. So I’m reaching back to get a note I would normally reach up for. I cover the top five strings with the slide and when I want to grab that note I lift the slide very slightly and push the first string down to the fretboard with my finger [Example 4c]. I’m leaning the slide toward the low strings a little. Which is why it’s so hard because the motion is so subtle. If I do it right, which I try to do every time [laughs], I can hit the fifth-fret note with the slide, pick it up so I can catch the third-fret note with my finger, and still be holding the note at five on the second string with the slide. That creates those ringing overtones that are so cool. I get the melodic motion while still holding the slide chord.
On this one I do a behind-the-slide thing with a chromatic run [Example 5]. The slide has to stay down on this one because part of the chord I’m fingerpicking is fretted by the slide. It’s hard because I have to hold the slide bar down gently, let it float, but then I have to push down with my finger not so gently to disengage the string from the slide and push it to touch the fretboard. It’s like my fingers have to do two separate things because I have to get the slide to hover, giving it enough weight that the notes are clear, but I can’t press too hard because I have to get the fretted strings out from underneath it.
Do you set the action on your guitar high?
PHELPS: Not too high, but maybe a touch higher than average. I think that’s because I use the capo a lot and I still want the strings to be high enough to do this stuff when I put the capo on. A lot of National players keep their action real high but I don’t think mine is that high.
You do a cool descending run in “Brother Pilgrim” that goes the whole length of the neck. Can you play that for me?
PHELPS: It starts with the slide up high on the top four strings and I grab the sixth string two frets below it [Example 6]. I move the shape down three frets, then two, then two more, just carrying the harmonic idea down. The tricky thing about that is as you move down the fingerboard the frets get farther apart, so you lock the spacing in here up high but you have to keep widening it out as it goes down because the slide has to be over the top of the fret or it’s out of tune. And I get those ringy overtones again with no muting. I don’t mute that section of the song at all. It’s like the sustain pedal on the piano. It’s like I just hold it down for that whole part.
It seems like your work with the bottleneck slide style has been kind of liberating for you.
PHELPS: Yes, I feel like everything I could do with the lap style is covered, but then because I can fret and use combinations of fingers, all of a sudden it seems like I can play the guitar as I always have, but now I can add the slide sound to it. When those things started showing up in my head I thought, “That sounds like so much fun, I gotta go after that because there’s no end in sight.”
WHAT HE PLAYS
ACOUSTIC GUITARS: 1999 National Style O. 2006 Martin D-35 Johnny Cash model with a polished black finish.
AMPLIFICATION: Shure SM-57 microphones. “I’ve gone back to using microphones,” Phelps says. “I didn’t want to use a pickup on the National, so I carried that over to the Martin, too. I’m not using monitors anymore either. I’m still getting used to it but at least my guitar sounds like my guitar.”
STRINGS: D’Addario medium-gauge 80/20 bronze. On the National, Phelps swaps the top two strings (.013 and .017) for a .016 and .018.
SLIDE: Big Heart Robert Johnson model, a solid bronze slide that Phelps lines with a layer of gaffer’s tape to get a snug fit. “It’s slightly shorter than my little finger, which allows tipping the slide forward a little bit so I can use just the leading edge of it while I try to use other strings around it, either fretted or open.”