Tonight, I want to introduce you to an incredible man, a fantastic musician, and a great “feel good” story. Kirby Kelly grew up in St. Louis Missouri and began playing guitar in his early teens. He started by listening to Jimi Hendrix records over and over, picking up licks and chord progressions, but it was the sounds of blues legend Son House that turned his focus toward the blues. The raw power and emotion that the music of the old blues masters evoked really stirred his soul unlike any other musical genre.
When he got out of high school, he began a journey that bounced him between Missouri and Texas until 1980 when he moved to Texas to help run an ostrich farm. Although he could entertain his family and friends with his guitar genius, severe stage fright kept him from performing publically until he was in his thirties. But an Ibanez guitar artist-relations rep heard him at a guitar show testing a new amp and hooked him up with Mike “Junior” Clark who eventually forced him out of his shell to face his stage fears. Now over fifty years old, Kelley has his own Delta blues show.
But it hasn’t been easy. At one point in 2009, burned out and tired of bad deals with promoters and club owners, economics forced him to sell or pawn his collection of twenty-eight lap steel, acoustic or electric guitars to pay bills. His wife, Peg, remembers, “Every month he would ask how much we needed and then he’d come in with the money.” Finally, as a last resort, he showed up at North Dallas Guitar Center store planning to sell his last guitar, a custom-made Paul Reed Smith. But his friend and guitar shop owner Robbie Gustin knew about living on the edge of life and salvation. His fight with drugs and depression brought him to his knees, and he believes he was saved to be placed in the right place at the right time to help Kelly. He refused to take the guitar, and instead informed Kelly that he’d entered him in Guitar Center’s national “King of the Blues” contest. When Kelly objected, Gustin told him to shut up because it was a God thing.
Kelly bested more than four thousand other guitarists, who competed at local Guitar Center stores across the country and in district and regional rounds to make the finals. At the finals, he was the oldest one in the final five to play in front of a capacity crowd at the House of Blues on Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Sitting in the front row as judges were many of Kelley’s guitar heroes, including Steve Lukather and Hubert Sumlin, who played with the legendary Howlin’ Wolf. For his first song on the electric guitar, he performed a blues tune off a list given to the contestants, but to show guitar mastery, contestants had to perform a second song on an acoustic guitar. Kelley played his version of the Robert Johnson blues classic Cross Road Blues. He is a master at the Delta Blues style, sometimes employing two slides at once, a feat that blew the judges away and Kelly Kirby was crowned the 2009 King of the Blues.
When the announcer called his name as the winner, Kirby made his way to the mike and read a note from his daughter written twenty years ago that said, “To POP, you are a good guitar player.” Needless to say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Through it all, his wife Peg says their faith in God kept them going through the many bad times that probably outnumbered the good. But she realized her husband was gifted. “I’ve always known that he was one of the best and had faith that someday somebody would see that. I prayed that others would see what I saw.” Now they have. Kelly Kirby considers himself thrice blessed with his faith, his marriage to an incredible woman, and his ability on the guitar. Hope you enjoy this amazing man and musician.
2009 Blues King Competition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGmLsLmT11A&feature=related
See that my grave is kept clean: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_S4qSBsdj4
King of the blues competition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70D3qJS57Ck
12 String slide: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUQtAE_4_RI
Jesus on the main line: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1ad2mvjDo8
Sun gonna shine on my back door someday: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPYP_4DJmxw
Fixin to die blues: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZHI4i6RNcY
Last fair deal going down: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TLnXQw37_Q
Hair parted in the middle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkNj3BA68sY
Tell me where you stayed last night: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVmvpihtpu4
For a special man like Kirby, I’ve got to pair him with a super special wine, the 2010 Beckman Vineyards Cuvee Le Bec Santa Ynez Valley ($18.00). It’s an American version of a classic Cote du Rhone with a luscious mixture of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre. The aromas of this wine explode with dark berries and herbs. The taste is slightly sweet with red raspberries, juicy tart cherries, and cassis. Fine tannins lead to a long sweet finish. This wine paired with Kirby Kelly is a can’t miss for a crisp autumn evening. Enjoy!