Steam-Powered Radio with Kelly Wells
This is the third DJ we’ve interviewed from St. Louis’s fiercely independent KDHX. I am impressed by their programming and community involvement. Kelly Wells is not only a host but also a staff member, and has a country-folk band with her husband.
Where and when did you start in radio? What other stations have you worked at and what were the stations like?
My university had a college radio station where I would join friends in the air room from time to time. I never had a show, but got used to speaking into the radio void and helped pick out music from time to time. I learned about the dump button and the cough button — both very handy.
Where do you work now?
I started my show on KDHX in August of 2013. I call it Steam-Powered Radio and it’s on every Wednesday morning from 10 a.m. to noon. Like all shows on KDHX, you can listen at 88.1 FM or online, and the shows are archived for two weeks after they air.
How do you describe your show?
Officially: Steam-Powered Radio transports you across a musical landscape spanning great American music from old to new. Kelly Wells brings you gritty old-time, hard-driving bluegrass, deep-south blues, heartbreak country, and relevant folk.
Casually: Folk, blues, bluegrass, old-time, country and Americana.
I think of my show as this big umbrella labeled FOLK, and every song I play falls into that very broad category in some way. I search out good music with a roots connection that’s got some grit. I can’t always define why some music fits into my self-defined idea of “good” and some doesn’t, but I know it when I hear it.
How do you prepare for your shows?
Most of my planning happens by contemplation. I like to start with a song, a general idea, or a particular artist and ruminate on it for a few days. I slowly add songs to a playlist throughout the week and finalize it a day or so before my show.
Do you have theme shows or sets or spotlight certain artists?
Showcasing the connections between old and new artists is a major focus of the show and I love to weave those connections together. Frequently, the focus of my show heads in a completely different direction than I originally intended. I’m very fond of the rabbit hole and will abandon all planning to follow an idea, theme, or concept as far as I can.
How many new releases do you play?
I play about 60% old music and about 40% new music. Creating a show that weaves from an obscure old-time ballad to a brand new neo folk or even rock song is what it’s all about. You know the saying, “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been”? That’s how I view music and what I attempt to convey during each show.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
I grew up in the Southland, so roots music is a way of life. Gospel, Delta blues, classic country and old-time songs were ever present in my youth. Most of the bands I listened to in high school and college had some elements of that old music: Uncle Tupelo, North Mississippi Allstars, Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead. I didn’t much think about their connection to the older music until I got a little older. As I moved out of the South I encountered bands playing that old music and incorporating those old songs in their new style. It opened up a whole new world of obsession — delving into the old music as completely as possible as a way to understand newer music and as a way to understand human experience.
A couple of albums changed my life when I was about 18 or 20 and it wasn’t until later that I realized they led me to a fuller understanding of roots music. Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Son Volt’s Trace will always have a special place in my heart.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
When I think favorites, I always go back to good ol’ country music. If every song could be a country song, I’d be pretty happy. Kitty Wells (I grew up thinking I was related to her thanks to a tall-tale-tellin’ grandpa), Hank Williams, Rose Maddox, Ray Price, Ernest Tubb are all standouts. Also, close country duo harmonies get me every time: The Delmore Brothers, The Louvin Brothers, Hazel and Alice, George Jones and Gene Pitney.
I’d have to say my favorite of more contemporary artists, though, is Freakwater, the alt-country female duo from Louisville that came on the scene in the mid-’90s. Their harmonies are less than perfect, but you can hear their passion for the old music in their harmony approach and in their songwriting. When I think of a band that defines a general idea of “Americana” music, I think of Freakwater.
How do you define what Americana music is?
While it’s really fun to debate what Americana is, I prefer to let it boil down to basics: Americana = music played by Americans. I feel that way about folk music too: folk music = music played by folk.
Where do you see radio going in the future?
Radio is so romantic. I’m reminded of this every week when I step into the air room to do my show. Hearing something on the radio, discovering music there, being exposed to artists you’ve never heard, there’s nothing like that. There’s also nothing like knowing there’s a real live DJ picking out all that music and taking you on that journey. Music tells us our stories, it always has and it always will and in my experience, folks still like hearing them told over the “airwaves.”
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
I’m drawn to music that has depth, has clear connections to American roots music in style, lyrics, and instrumentation and is being played by hard-working musicians passionate about the music they are playing. Current obsessions right now are The Tillers, Anna & Elizabeth, Danny Barnes, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams, and Tuba Skinny.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
I’m inspired by the power that music has: the power for social change, the power to bring people together, the power to adjust thinking, the power to highlight real hurt, real pain, and real joy. Humans can’t always hear each other or communicate those things, but music can. Stepping into the air room every week and doing my best to communicate with people through music the things I find important or my listeners find important, that both inspires and humbles me.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests?
Most of my interests revolve around music. When I’m not spinning it on the air, I’m listening to it, reading about it, playing it, writing it, going to see it, or thinking about it. I play in a band called The Aching Hearts with my husband, Ryan Spearman. We play a lot of that old music I’ve talked about, but also write our own. Ryan and I host a podcast called The Aching Hearts Show: Music, Mortality and the Pursuit of Happiness. My favorite music biography is about the Delmore Brothers written by Alton Delmore called Truth is Stranger Than Publicity. Truer words were never spoken.