Kelly Joe Phelps performs at Capilano University's NSCU Centre for the Performing Arts, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 at 8 p.m. as part of the Global Roots series. Tickets $30/$27.
THE two roads crossed in a lonely Mississippi county.
Standing on that cross, the bluesman sold his soul to the devil, walking away with an ability to play guitar like no one before him.
Ever since the story of Tommy Johnson's deal with the dark prince, the blues and Christianity have shared an uneasy relationship.
Blues songs have often been about rebellion and lament, the hellhounds on your trail or the devil who's got your woman.
On first listen, Kelly Joe Phelps' latest album, Brother Sinner and the Whale, is part of that tradition, soaked in whiskey and seasoned with sadness.
But then the lyrics come in.
"Why do I choose to suffer when I can live with God?" Phelps sings.
There's no mojo hand or backdoor man in these tunes, instead, Phelps has crafted songs about salvation and glory, each one connected to a different bible passage.
"Christianity was a big part of my childhood years. I've done the fairly common thing over the course of time of kind of drifting in and out of it," Phelps says, speaking slowly and in low tones.
The album is spare and personal, recorded in three days at the Henhouse Studio in Vancouver with no background singers to soften his vocals and no accompanist to round out the sound of his slide guitar.
"It's just me and the guitars. If I'm doing my job well then it's going to go quickly and smoothly," he says. "I always record the guitar and the voice at the same time. We might end up recording three or four versions of the same song, but we've still only spent a half an hour."
Phelps' fingers move nimbly between the frets of his guitar, displaying a versatility that suggests he could play jazz if he wanted, but his voice sounds like it was designed as a blues instrument.
His singing is understated and his mouth never opens wide. The album was produced by singer/songwriter Steve Dawson, who suggested Phelps record a solo album.
"He knows me as a person and he knows my music," Phelps says of Dawson.
With an encyclopedic musical knowledge, particularly when it comes to blues, the two musicians deal in a shorthand, making their points with obscure musical reference points.
"That's another part of the thread that weaves us together," Phelps says. "We always know what the other is talking about."
On "Down to the Praying Ground" Phelps vows to live for God, singing, "Lord have mercy, lord forgive me."
Forgiveness is the common thread throughout the album, something Phelps says was a conscious decision.
In reading the works of the monks and hermits who chronicled their own struggles with faith in the solitude of the desert many centuries ago, Phelps was struck by the intimate relationship between forgiveness and salvation.
"We are sinners and the way that we receive the grace and light is through forgiveness. Those are the stones that start to form a foundation of the house one would build," he says.
While his recent journey to Christianity didn't begin in shame or despair, Phelps did have a sense of a ticking clock.
"I realized that I was slowly running out of time to figure it out," he says, discussing his attempt to untangle his feelings about God and the internal workings of his soul and psyche.
The album's title refers to the biblical story of Jonah's escape from the belly of a great fish, an important story for Phelps.
"It also has close significance for me because of the imagery of turning one's back to God, and not wanting to do the work, maybe, that was being asked. Being swallowed by the whale, being in complete darkness and having the choice of remaining there or admitting this nugget of truth which was: I actually do want to do this thing. . . . I'm here in the worst place in the world and I still believe and trust. That's what it is, and getting spit back out and then going back to do the work and not always being completely content and comfortable in doing it, but realizing not to do it would be to deny the truth," he says. "Also it's a really short book, so if you or anyone hasn't read it and would like to, it only takes about 15 minutes."
Growing up in Sumner, Wash., Phelps grew up around music.
"Most every day there was some music being played in the evening at home, so it was always around and it was great for me because it made it appear as though it was the most natural thing for anyone to do," he says.
With about a dozen guitar lessons to help get him started, Phelps is mostly self-taught.
Carrying literary influences ranging from John Steinbeck to Ray Bradbury, the vagabond musician's words are meant to stand outside popular music.
Phelps's songs tend to have idiosyncratic structures, rarely relying on a chorus or a rhyme scheme.
"It's a safe bet that wordplay probably predates song lyrics," he says. "I'm equal parts guitar player to songwriter, and because of that I've had to spend time trying to figure out how to write songs in such a way that both of them have equal place and equal balance. That's an unusual thing, it's not unique but it's unusual," he says. "So I realized then I wasn't going to get much help by looking at songwriters. I also realized then that if I wasn't going to look at songwriters, who was I going to look at for example and inspiration in terms of what to do with words and the answer was fairly obvious, that was the poets."
The religious aspect of the new album may seem jarring, but for Phelps, it's part of his evolution as a musician and a person.
"It's done a lot of good for me," he says of his return to church. "Before Christ, after Christ, during Christ, it's so old. There's so much to study and so much to learn. . . . Nothing on the outside of what I've been doing has ever been something that needed changed or fixed. I fully and firmly believe and have always believed in the arts in general, music specifically. It's the way that I move through the world."