By Kate Stow
Photo by Michael Heeschen
There is a realm of guitar playing that few players manage to enter – the “thirteenth note” – the note that figuratively expands the range of the instrument, and aurally touches the heart. So, it’s no wonder that any guitar player that manages to do that would be greatly admired among his peers.
Kirby Kelley, slide guitar master and BUDDY Magazine 2018 Texas Tornado is one such musician.
“When I first heard Kirby play, he absolutely blew me away,” exclaimed Paul Reed Smith, famed luthier and founder of PRS guitars. “He produced noises I’ve never heard a guitar make – he found the thirteenth note!”
Smith, the CEO of the third largest guitar manufacturer in the world was so impressed by Kirby that he was inspired to create a custom PRS guitar for him. The two men quickly formed a bond that has lasted 17 years.
“I was playing with Bugs Henderson (1978 Tornado), and we were hired to play Paul’s 50th birthday party,” recalled Kirby. “I was worried because I didn’t have a PRS guitar, but Bugs said Paul wouldn’t care. While we were rehearsing, he came in and looked over our equipment. I guess he wasn’t so impressed ‘cause he sent me a PRS soon after!”
While his musical prowess has been recognized by many, it was Kirby Kelley the man, who was celebrated with an awesome gathering of Texas players on Sunday, June 25 at the Plaza Theatre in Garland. After an introduction by Paul, a concert worth remembering began, featuring performances by stellar musicians, including a long list of Texas Tornados: Guthrie Kennard (1992), Jimmy Wallace (1992), Buddy Whittington (1990), Mike “Junior” Clark (1982), Jerry Don Branch (2015), Jim Suhler (1989), Mike Morgan (1992), Andy Timmons (1991), Mike Daane (1992), Robert “Texas Slim” Sullivan (1987) and drummers Linda Waring (1982) and Mike Arnold (1990).
Although these top guns were happy to play together, the reason for it wasn’t so happy. The concert was a fundraiser to help Kirby pay medical bills he’s incurred since being diagnosed with cancer in November 2022.
Jimmy Wallace, the owner and CEO of the Dallas International Guitar Festival, put the show together and extended the invites. To enter the event cost a donation to the cause, and there were also several auction items to bid on – including a guitar signed by 1978 Texas Tornado Jimmie Vaughan.
“…the most beautiful day of my life. It was taxing and thoroughly exhausting, and worth every millisecond of it!” – Kirby Kelley
Kirby’s musical journey began in St. Louis at the tender age of 15. He had a crush on a girl who just happened to have a great record collection that included some old 78’s. It was those recordings that touched Kirby deep in his soul, most particularly one by Edward James “Son” House, Jr. the early Mississippi slide guitar player.
Two years later, Kirby moved to Dallas. While working for a moving company, he lived in a furniture storage unit in Grapevine to save money to buy guitars.
“I mostly bought vintage guitars and dobros,” he recalled. “You could find them in the weekly “Thrifty Nickel” paper pretty cheap.”
Kirby joined his first band in the early 1980s; they moved to West Palm Beach and rented a one-room apartment. He described the experience thusly: “We played around, got broke, and came home.”
While his guitar playing was restricted to playing for family and friends, Kirby made his living as a carpenter, among other professions. A 1990 foray into ostrich farming didn’t quite get off the ground.
It was in 1992, when he was in his thirties that Ibanez artist relations rep Chris Kelly heard him testing an amp at the Dallas International Guitar Festival. Kelly sent Kirby to the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Show in California and jump started a new career.
While in Los Angeles, Kirby met Texas players Andy Timmons and Mike “Junior” Clark. He gives credit to Mike for getting him on stage.
“Junior tried to coax me into playing, but I had stage fright so bad then,” Kirby said. “He’s my beloved musical brother – we’ve played a long time, on and off together. Junior’s one of the few people I’ve met that is respectful and giving and lets you play what you want to play.”
Playing with Junior led to playing with legendary Texas blues man Bugs Henderson. Kirby honed his Delta-style slide technique until he mastered the use of two slides – on both his middle and little fingers.
Playing with Bugs led to that fateful day in 2006 when Kirby met Paul Reed Smith.
“He’s been so loving and giving and generous, and so beautifully endorses my playing,” said Kirby of Paul. “He is so complimentary. I can’t explain my love for him. He calls and texts often to check on me.”
“Kirby is a beautiful human – inside and out,” said Paul, who is currently working on a Kirby-inspired accessory to market and sell through PRS.
“Kirby keeps a Persian silk cloth that he drapes over his amp, and it changes his tone – it’s so simple, yet genius,” Paul said, adding “I found the textile factory that makes the fabric while on vacation overseas and bought a bunch of it.”
“Paul is a flipping genius, and if anyone can market it – it’s him,” laughed Kirby. “The funny thing is, I got it at Goodwill for about two bucks a long time ago, and the only reason it’s on my amp is ’cause it’s so ugly my wife won’t let me put it on the wall!”
The amp it covers is a Dallas model PRS engineered by Dallas’ David Sewell, who works for PRS. The combination of PRS amp and Kirby’s PRS custom Modern Eagle axe gives Kirby the sound that helped him win the Guitar Center Blues Challenge in 2009.
“It really is the best guitar I’ve ever owned – and I’ve owned a LOT! He did some custom wiring on it and put in special pickups,” Kirby explained. “Plus, it’s just a stunning piece of art. Paul is an amazing architect and artist.”
As all musicians know, the business fluctuates between feast and famine. Over the years, when Kirby needed more money than he had in order to take care of his family, he sold or pawned pieces of his guitar collection – 28 in all.
And so, it was at such a particularly hard time that Kirby found himself trying to sell his last guitar – the custom PRS – to his friend, Robbie Gustin at the North Dallas Guitar Center. Robbie refused to buy the prized possession, instead entering Kirby’s name in the national chain’s “King of the Blues” contest that year.
By this point, Kirby felt burned out after a string of bad deals with promoters and club owners. Not believing a contest was a true test of a musician’s talent, he balked, but Robbie won the argument. Kirby went on to beat over 4,000 entries from all over the country, and pawning guitars became a thing of the past.
“Every month he would ask how much we needed and then he’d come in with the money,” Kelley’s wife Peg told writer Dan Acree of Texoma Living Magazine in 2010. “He never said what he was doing, but I knew.”
“Kirby plays guitar like a bird sings – beautiful and naturally. He’s a true musical treasure and he’s touched so many people’s lives with his gentle yet fierce spirit and his unparalleled guitar playing.”
– 1989 Texas Tornado Jim Suhler, George Thorogood and The Destroyers and Monkeybeat
Besides carpentry and the ostrich farm fiasco, Kirby has taught countless others to play the guitar through the National Guitar Workshop satellite campus. “I love being able to teach and touch young hearts,” he said. “You get wonderful feedback and inspiration.”
The win gave him a newfound passion for his art, and he began taking steel guitar lessons from 1990 Texas Tornado Maurice Anderson, owner of MSA steel guitars, who is in the Texas Steel Guitar Hall of Fame and the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. So impressed was Anderson that he built a 12-string steel guitar just for Kirby; it’s no surprise they ended up being friends.
Being named “King of the Blues” in 2009 catapulted Kirby into the international guitar scene. He enjoyed touring with Dan Toler of Allman Brothers fame, until Dan got too sick to play.
“We did a small tour through the southeast. I really enjoyed that time, then Dan got sick with MS and passed,” said Kirby. “Dan was as beautiful a player as he was a human.”
“For as long as I’ve known Kirby, which has been many years now, he’s been a man of few words, with the heart of a baby possum. His soul runs as deep as the Mississippi River, and his music is as real as Robert Johnson standing at the crossroads. There’s only one Kirby Kelley.”
– 1992 Texas Tornado Guthrie Kennard, Singer, songwriter.
In 2018, Kirby was chosen to teach a slide guitar class at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, during the annual Blues Guitar Week. “Dr. Kim Perlak (department chair) has been a dear friend for a long time, and she asked me and Dave Tronzo to do that,” Kirby remarked in his usual unassuming way – as if he truly doesn’t understand what a monumental honor it was.
Life was looking up for the Kelley family, and not one guitar was sacrificed to pay bills. When not playing, Kirby could be found riding his mountain bike, kayaking, or running marathons. “Sitting around is not my style,” he said.
The athletic activity slowed considerably in April 2022, when Kirby developed a blood clot in his leg that didn’t respond to blood thinners. That November, an astute hematologist at the hospital insisted on an extra sonogram. That scan revealed a mass in Kirby’s right lung and brain.
“They diagnosed me with Stage 4 lung cancer, which metastasized into my lymph nodes and brain. There is no remission for this kind of cancer – we can only keep it at bay with heavy rotations of radiation and chemotherapy,” Kirby said. “Dr. Sidda, my oncologist at Texas Oncology, said I had about two to four years – but he doesn’t know me…or maybe he does.”
Despite catching Covid-19 while doing chemo, then double pneumonia, Kirby remains optimistic about his outlook. Although biking and running are temporarily halted, he still loves to work in the garden and play guitar when he can.
“I’m learning the pedal steel and loving every second,” he said, full of happy excitement. “David Wright of Pilot Point is helping me – he’s in the Hall of Fame.”
Kirby and Peg live in Sherman, just north of Dallas; daughter Sara, son-in-law Matt and their three children live just down the road. Kirby said being in the delivery room when his two oldest grandchildren were born are two of his happiest memories.
“What an amazing guy, not only a unique and incredible player, but a sweetheart of a human being. I love him dearly and I truly hope we will share the stage more often!” – Tommy Katona, Texas Flood
Among his most prized possessions is a handwritten card that was attached to a bouquet of flowers delivered to him. At first, he thought they were meant for Peg until he opened the note – a testament to his artistry. It read: “Dearest Mr. Kirby Kelley, I was deeply moved by your pristine outlook on why you make music. As you said – to touch people, to be precise, touch people’s hearts and remind them that they, like you and I – they matter, they are significant and meaningful. Bless your heart, your mind and your fingers. Look forward to meeting you in the flesh in the future. Love, Respect and Admiration, Carlos Santana.”
When asked what he considers his favorite memory, he replied: “There have been so many. I’ve been gifted with so many beautiful things, it’s hard to choose,” then he added, “meeting Paul was one of the beautiful gifts. Winning King of the Blues, and meeting Dr. Sidda, who is a wonderful soul and a dear friend.”
It’s easy to understand why so many people call Kirby a friend. His humble, easygoing and optimistic attitude is contagious. That is why the Garland’s Plaza Theatre was packed on June 25; why Paul Reed Smith flew in from Maryland; and why so many local musicians moved their gigs around just so they could be there.
“To say Kirby plays from the heart still doesn’t paint the whole picture,” declared Jimmy Wallace. “He fully invades every heart that can hear him.”
To help with Kirby’s medical expenses: https://www.gofundme.com/f/kirby-kelley-kickin-cancer-fund