Born in Memphis, Tenn., Wells found herself in the DJ booth at KDHX (and a member of the staff as Chief Engagement Officer) after a series of fortunate events, the first of them being moving from Colorado to St. Louis with her husband Ryan Spearman (a St. Louis native and musician, who also volunteers with KDHX).
Wells grew up listening to a lot of "old-time country music." The oldest of six, and a preacher's daughter, she remembers the old tunes her grandmother used to sing, and says that's when her love of folk music was born.
While living in Colorado, Wells met a lot of musicians who listened and played that "old-timey" music she adored from her childhood, like Kitty Wells (no relation) and Ernest Tubb. It was at that time that she learned more about the history of that genre, and says that her passion for it "evolved from there."
Admittedly, Wells never thought she'd be moving back east, but has been pleasantly surprised by the music scene in St. Louis and couldn't be happier in her role at KDHX.
Liz Schranck: What brought you to St. Louis?
Kelly Wells: I got married in Colorado, and then my husband Ryan Spearman is from here, so we ended up coming back here. I never thought that I would move back east, I thought that I would continue going west, and have been pleasantly surprised by St. Louis, in fact, more than pleasantly. The longer I'm here the more I realize what a great town this is. After having lived in different towns around the country, I think that St. Louis has a phenomenal music and arts scene. Artists and musicians are very well supported here in a way you don't get to see very often.
For the folk music side of things, it's a great place to be because we kind of sit at the top of the Ozarks, which is this wealth of history for traditional and American roots music. It's all just sitting right here. I think with the Midwest combination and the closeness to the South, it all kind of comes together and combines for St. Louis in a great way.
How did you become involved at KDHX?
It's been an interesting journey, actually. Ryan has played music for a long time and became an instructor at the Folk School, and I started volunteering there. Through a series of events, I was on the board there for a while and ended up becoming the director of the Folk School. And then I got to be a part of the merger with KDHX almost two years ago. I came on as the education director, and now my role has expanded to engagement, which includes education, events and partnerships and other things like that. I couldn't have asked for a better route.
It's funny how life works like that.
Exactly. It's funny because I knew about KDHX before I moved here. Ryan would stream KDHX on his computer back in Colorado, and every person that I met from St. Louis would say, "Hey, we have the best radio station in the world in St. Louis. You have to check out 88.1 KDHX." So, I was already listening to it when I moved here, and one of the first things I did was call up the volunteer coordinator and see if I could answer phones because I wanted to get involved.
You play an eclectic mix of folk, blues and Americana music on your show. How did you come up with the name "Steam-Powered Radio?"
Naming a radio show is difficult. It took me awhile. I guess it is inspired by John Hartford's song "Steam Powered Aereo-plane." John Hartford is a St. Louis boy, and I'm a fan of his and listen to a lot of his music. So this "steam-powered" idea came from him, but for me it also speaks of old-timey, roots, tradition. But it also speaks of this hard-working, American…well, feel, really. I guess it's more of a feel than being able to describe it really well. It's this sense of America and a lot of it's greatness. I think that folk music has always been the way people tell stories and pass news around...the way people talk about things of the day. It's very "This is the way it is. I got my heart broken or this thing happened to me because of this." The idea of "steam-powered" brings all that together for me.
Speaking of that, St. Louis has a pretty strong folk/bluegrass music community. Is that what you seek out when you want a night of live music?
I do. I do. I like a lot of different styles of music. I'm pretty open about liking different types of music, but I especially love the folk and the blues. To me it's all folk music, but the alt-country, Americana -- anything that has a roots-y feel to it -- is generally what I'm looking for.
So the instrumental connections are intentional when you put together your playlists?
I feel like the foundation of most of the music we have today in America all kind of comes from the same place. I feel like it started in the same place and it has evolved -- and that evolution is important, but it's also exciting to get to remember where it came from.
That's one of my goals with "Steam-Powered Radio," and in my music and working with the Folk School: to be able to show how all of those things are interconnected. You can have this song over here that's as old-timey as can be, where it's scratchy and you can hardly figure out what the fiddler is doing, they're hollerin' some lyrics, and then you can, on the opposite end, have a studio release of a brand new band that's got, maybe, drums and electric guitar and something else, but that connection is there. And I love showing those connections and kind of saying, "Hey, this all fits under the folk umbrella," because folk music is the music of the people.
That's one of my goals. As I go through music for the show and as I plan it. It's like, here's a brand new band who's doing this, but they've got just enough of that roots sound where you can hear something that Hank Williams Sr. did or Bill Monroe.
Do you play any instruments yourself?
I play guitar and mandolin mostly with a tiny bit of banjo thrown in! I started with piano when I was young. I don't play much. I haven't had a piano in awhile. I was taught in a very "here's your sheet music, read it and play it" sort of way. One thing folk music -- guitar, banjo, violin, that sort of thing -- has done is help me get outside of that path.
Do you sing?
Ryan and I have a duo together called the Aching Hearts that we just started this past year. Ryan, of course, has played for many years. I was in a band called the LuLus that was an all-female country band that I played out with years ago.
We do a lot of old-timey music and country. I do a lot of Kitty Wells covers and things like that. We also write kind of in that same vein.
Do you two go to open mics or play out around St. Louis?
Yeah, we have played shows. We used to host an open mic for three years at Atomic Cowboy, which is now hosted by Cree and Cheryl (of the Cree Rider Family Band). We started that open mic, actually.
We don't play out as much now because we space our shows out, but we have a private CD release this weekend. We did a Kickstarter for this last album and got a lot of community support, which was awesome, so we are doing an exclusive release for all those backers. We probably play five or six times a year in St. Louis.
We're playing at the KDHX Byrds tribute in March, covering some Byrds songs. That should be fun! It's on March 28.