Channeling the influences of Lead Belly and Dock Boggs, Kelly Joe Phelps continues to create anew within the country blues idiom while staying true to its roots on Shine Eyed Mister Zen. Using an acoustic guitar the way most would play a dobro, Phelps produces a combination of percussive bass plucking alongside graceful slide work. Combined with his soulful vocals, which sound like Buddy Miller on a two-pack habit, Phelps further betrays his bluesman’s sensibility, frequently harmonizing with his slide to form an eerie sound.
Phelps’ songwriting also deserves notice. One would be hard-pressed to tell the originals interspersed among the traditional blues tunes here without looking at the credits. He also can take an old warhorse such as “Goodnight Irene” and strip away its tired reputation to reveal its underlying sense of quiet defeatism.
Phelps might have best described his style with this lyric: “Lay it down horizontal lean/Slip a finger across the bar/Whip the high note frantic.” Although subtle and compact, his playing never sacrifices fiery tension.