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Daily Inspiration: Meet Brian Kelm

Today we’d like to introduce you to Brian Kelm.

Brian, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I was born in solid, idyllic middle class St. Paul, MN, on the border of St. Paul/Mpls, off the Mississippi River.  Despite the flatlands, ever since I can remember, I had a fascination with mountains. 

When it was time to do a book report I always gravitated toward Switzerland because of the Swiss Alps. I knew that after high school I needed to be in the mountains and Colorado was the logical choice. 

At a college fair in Minneapolis, I gathered Colorado college pamphlets and just as I was leaving, saw a booth for the University of Utah with posters of Alta and Snowbird in the background. It was far cheaper than Colorado and half the distance to killer skiing.  The rest is history.  

Simultaneously, having come from a musical family where all my other four siblings were musicians to one degree or another, I would rifle through my older brothers’ albums and would see covers of these imposing, bad-ass looking bluesmen and women. Out of curiosity, I’d put them on the turntable and in short order was completely hooked. The passion and power of blues music immediately resonated with me even as a pre-teen – BB, Freddie and Albert King, Muddy Waters, Big Joe Turner, you name it. I couldn’t get enough. 

I did my first blues radio show as a one-time guest on KFAI in Minneapolis when I was about 15 years old (it was a disaster and funny story unto itself!).  When I got to Salt Lake City, and the U of U, I took “Broadcast Journalism” in Winter quarter 1980.  Professor Tim Larson mentioned that there was a new community radio station starting up that needed volunteers – KRCL.  

I went there shortly thereafter, in March 1980. I said, “I like blues music.”  They said, “Great, wanna do a blues program starting next Thursday?”  I said, “Sure!”  And that was it.  Less than an hour of training and still a teenager, I was on the air.  Little did I know I’d still be doing this labor of love more than four decades later. 

Meanwhile, I took various classes at the U of U and ended up with a Communications degree (emphasis on Broadcast Journalism) with Business and French minors and EMT training. I knew I didn’t want to be a medic or radio DJ for a living, playing the same top 40 hits that some NY corporation told me to play. The only way I would be on the radio is handpicking choice blues cuts, so I needed an alternate profession.  

Teaching bicycling classes at the U, I got half price tuition, so I  considered an advanced degree, with the logical ones being law or medicine. Law was cheaper, shorter, and beneficial in life whatever you do, whereas if you go to medical school, you almost invariably end up being a doctor, which I wasn’t sure I wanted to be. So really, by default, I ended up in law school, never having had such aspirations before.  

In less than a year of practice at a law firm, I felt it wasn’t for me. I had always wanted to go to Alaska, as did my best friend, and serendipitously, the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened. We both packed our bags and he did carpentry, while I taught a safety class, flying all over AK to teach it in sketchy little airplanes and conditions.  That morphed into working for the lead attorney representing commercial fisherman against Exxon, for the next year plus, which was quite an experience. 

After that ran its course, I came back to Utah and decided that my best skill set to make a living was work comp law which I was doing right out of law school. I sought out the top dog in the field, Jinx Dabney, who helped me hang my shingle in the office next to his, and graciously taught me everything I know. I wouldn’t be where I am today without his mentorship.  

My advice to anybody getting into any field is to seek out the top dog and take them to lunch. Invariably, they are most often more than willing to impart wisdom. They have nothing to prove, they’ve been there done that, and shouldn’t be threatened by you entering the respective field, so ask!

So since 1990, I’ve had my own work comp law practice and have secured disability and medical benefits for hundreds of Utah’s injured workers and their families.  Since 2004, I’ve been one of the appointed injured worker representatives on the Governor’s Work Comp Advisory Council, advising the Governor/legislators on work comp matters that need change. Utah Business Magazine Legal Elite edition has included me in their top work comp attorneys’ section several times. 

It’s funny because in my legal circles, few know I’m on the radio playing the blues, and in my music circles, some people think I do that for a living (though it’s all volunteer of course), and may not know I am an attorney. Nor do many in either circle know of my athletic endeavors.  I lead a multiple, split-personality life! I live by the proverbial creed, “Work hard, play harder.”  I don’t waste time and I have little of it to spare.  

In fact, my most favorite thing in the world is kite surfing big waves in Maui, where I spend a ton of time every winter for the last 35 years. It started with windsurfing and evolved to kite surfing and then kite foiling and now wing foiling for the last couple years.  

There is nothing like harnessing the energy of mother nature and respectfully trying to ride her power on swells that have traveled thousands of miles (generally from AK) – 25 foot faces on an outer reef break in Maui, where there’s no support, as if a freight train is nipping at your heels.  My love of wind sports probably started in the early ‘80s when I used to hang glide. I worked at a hang gliding shop and made an Introductory film about hang gliding which people could watch because everyone would come in and invariably ask, “What’s hang gliding all about?!”   It’s actually amazing I’m still alive given the prehistoric equipment we were hanging our live on – though I did have a bad crash and broke my humerus!  

Another bad accident was April 1981 when I was hit by a car and my left leg was mangled.  I took up cycling to rehab it and got hooked on that as well.  I lived on my bike in the Summer of 1983 in Europe, won the Open Class of the 1984 Snowbird Hillclimb, and also set a world record on June 29-30, 1984 – 404.5 miles in one day (24 hours non-stop), going around Liberty Park nearly 300 times, on a day that topped 100 degrees!

I love Winter – both because of skiing and also because that’s when the big waves hit Maui.  I go to Alaska virtually every year to helicopter ski and snowboard the steeps and scare the crap out of myself. I also love cross country skate skiing damn near as much, and won my division of the 1997 West Yellowstone Rendezvous 25K race as one of my better results.  

There’s nothing like exploring Utah’s national parks, especially if it involves Canyoneering through slot canyons.  There’s a seemingly endless variety of routes and I want to hit ‘em all! 

I love clearing my head and working on my park-like compound and getting my hands dirty. During the pandemic I accomplished a longstanding project, thanks to my pal Shawn kickstarting and helping me, and built a bridge across the creek to the other side of my property, among other projects. 

I have a vast variety of plants and flora which I love to cultivate.  I’m also vegan and would love to incorporate even more edible items throughout my property. I’m a big animal lover and support and defend their rights whenever I can.

Back to the blues – one of my most cherished moments happened just a few years ago when I received a 2018 Keeping The Blues Alive award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis.  This is the highest award in the industry and is given to non-performers of blues such as people in radio, film, festivals, authors, etc.  It’s the equivalent of a Grammy in the blues world. 

Over the years, I’ve had countless blues luminaries in my house, and have had them crash here to save them money.  I’m a mainstage Emcee on every Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, which is a twice a year floating blues festival in the Caribbean or Pacific, with 30+ of the top blues bands playing on five or so stages, with music almost around the clock. I’m also asked to do an occasional Trivia Contest for the passengers as well. 

For the past 8 years, I’ve been President of the Utah Blues Society who throws the Utah Blues Festival, spearheaded by our Treasurer, my blues brother Tripp Hopkins.  And of course, for more than 42 years, possibly the longest continuous volunteer radio blues program in the world, I play the blues every Monday night from 8 – 10:30 on my “Red, White & Blues” program.  

You can listen on 90.9 FM KRCL or tune in from anywhere around the world at www.krcl.org.  I try to focus on current blues and turn people on to currently touring artists  – those are the musicians who need the airplay and support.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
I’ve been blessed, there haven’t been too many obstacles! Just orthopedic injuries from crashes and burns and some minor bumps in the road mentioned earlier.  I’ve always been one to pick myself up, brush myself off and move forward. It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you pick yourself back up.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I’ve tried to be pretty comprehensive in covering my interests above – as a Blues DJ/promoter/Emcee, as well as Workers’ Compensation attorney, as well as multi-faceted adventure enthusiast – jack of all trades, master of fun! 

What matters most to you? Why?
There is still nothing that moves me quite as much as a barroom blues player wailing out his or her soul in an emotionally soaked performance.  It raises the hair on my skin, particularly considering the historical context of the blues and its players. I have tried to convey this “blues power” and its worldwide impact in my radio programming. I.e. That the music matters because some of the world’s most popular bands – the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt – learned to sing and play by imitating it and still revere the recorded works of old blues masters.

The blues are also important and powerful because rock guitarists everywhere that play with a metal or glass slider on their fingers, pay homage, acknowledged or not, to Delta musicians like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Son House and J.B. Hutto.  It’s important because blues guitarists were the first on records to deliberately explore the uses of distortion and feedback.  It’s important because almost anyone who picks up a harmonica, in America, France, the Soviet Union or Iceland, will at some stage emulate either Little Walter or a Little Walter imitator.  It’s important because bass patterns, guitar riffs and piano boogies invented in the Delta, 75 – 100 years ago, appear throughout nearly all Western popular music, from hard rock to jazz to rap to country to movie soundtracks.

These are all good reasons why I’ve dedicated a substantial chunk of my life to spreading the gospel of blues music, and why you should listen to the blues, but they’re neither the only reasons, nor the best.  The music has never needed interpreters or popularizers – it’s always been strong enough to stand on its own.  Its story, from the earliest shadowy beginnings in slavery, to the Chicago migration, to the present worldwide popularity of B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Muddy Waters and so many others, is an epic as noble and as essentially American as any in our history.  Many of the originators who sang and played it, and some that I’ve interviewed or tried to get a station ID from, are not able to read and write, and yet they’ve laid the foundation for all American music that followed with this extraordinary musical art form called the blues.  I don’t know, maybe it’s that I’ve always been partial to the underdog.  The blues is the story of a small and severely deprived group of people who created, against tremendous odds, something that has enriched us all.  It is my hope that I have, in any small way, enriched people’s lives on Monday nights on KRCL these past 42 years as I aspire to educate and entertain.

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Image Credits
Marilyn Stringer

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