I Hear It in the Deep Heart's Core

Washington City Paper | September 18, 2006
What they call country music these days—you know, Oprah with a Stetson—is often touted as having stories you can relate to, told in words you can understand. Now that’s not a bad definition—and it’s one that Hank or Patsy would likely agree with—but to certain among us, the prosaic simply isn’t enough. I don’t want to gaze at a lithograph of a mighty oak, no matter how well-rendered; I want to climb the tree, feel the Spanish moss, wrap my bare toes around the roots.

Fortunately, “Americana” came along to give country’s poets, stoners, eccentrics, and philosophers a label to slap on their jewel cases and a fistful of magazines to showcase their stories. If genres are a necessary evil, though, I’ve got a moniker for this subset of Americana: “gnarly.” Used in a literal sense—not as surf slang—it was a favorite word of the late Dave Carter, who used it in speaking and singing about twisted roots and branches, but whose compositions were likewise linguistically deep-footed, intellectually branching, and poetically serpentine.

Kelly Joe Phelps—who, as Carter did, makes his home in northwestern Oregon, land of lush green horticulture—gets pretty gnarly on his eighth album, Tunesmith Retrofit. Check out the titles: “Red Light Nickel,” “Tight to the Jar,” “Loud as Ears”—it’s as if they sprang from some random poetry generator, dependent on sound as much as etymology to carry their meanings. And the sound is especially notable here: spare, largely acoustic, and deeply introverted. Phelps is no Brian Wilson wannabe, feet stuck in his own sandbox; he’s singing these small songs more for himself than for the rest of us. If we want to listen, we’re going to have to move onto his pickin’ porch.

Like John Fahey, Phelps seems to have dosed himself daily, for a lifetime, with American song forms. There are three fine waltzes here, including the melodica-based title track, and “MacDougal,” dedicated to Dave Van Ronk, is a slow ragtime meditation. Blues, bluegrass, mountain music, and even the brooding back-and-forth guitar of singer-songwriter folk show up here and there.

But more than his guitar or banjo playing, it’s Phelps’ lyrics that bear the mark of the same strangeness that passed through Fahey’s acoustic. “Give an old man grumble,” he demands, over a rambling guitar, in “Plumb Line.” “Wave the tag and bag the coat back.” In the handwritten booklet lyrics, “The Anvil” seems the scribbled doggerel of a would-be surrealist: “My legbones feel weary yet walk on they will/Holding for wheels and gravy.” But listen to this dreamy waltz for guitar, bass, and brushed drums, paying only half-attention, and the accretions of words become adages honed by the folk process into evocative truth.

The protagonist of “The Anvil” is worn down by time—and, as he soon suggests, by his own actions: “The liver will wither and wax with the tide.” This is a pretty waxy-livered disc overall. In “Big Shaky,” those leg bones are wobbling so much that the speaker is counting: “Ten steps weaving to the bottom, to the floor/I’ve taken 11, broken the door.” And like the spirit behind “Scapegoat,” a banjo piece that’s coked up to a breakneck breakdown, he’s fighting to maintain a holy intoxication: “Twelve step/I don’t want to think like that.”

But Tunesmith Retrofit eschews the queasy thrills of Devendra-like spasms of otherworldly possession, Waitsian weirdness, or even the been-there-done-that cred of the Man in Black. Phelps and co-producer Steve Dawson keep to fewer than two digits’ worth of instruments, and the artist’s vocals stay muted, clear, and sober. It takes either a coward or a fully evolved artist to emphasize the creation over the creator. And the mild-mannered Phelps isn’t scared of a damn thing.

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