Preaching the Summit

Colorado ski resorts look to folkie Jim Salestrom for a musical lift.

Twenty years ago, Jim Salestrom was lured to Breckenridge by a folk-friendly bar culture and the Rocky Mountain mentality that John Denver made famous in his music. Like that songwriter, Salestrom built a career around writing high-altitude odes to life in the mountains: In his adopted hometown, locals still refer to him as "the John Denver of Summit County."

Salestrom's pro-Colorado catalogue isn't totally inspired by a love for the high country, however. For the past five years, he's made a name, and a good portion of his living, as a globe-trotting musical pitchman for the state's ski industry, using his songs to draw tourists to the lifts and the lodges. When Salestrom wraps up a promotional stint in far-flung locations such as Buenos Aires or Berlin, he sends the bills directly to the accounting departments of destination resorts like Beaver Creek and Keystone.

Nice work if you can get it.

The hills are alive: Songwriter Jim Salestrom.
The hills are alive: Songwriter Jim Salestrom.

"I guess some people would look at that and think I'm a bit of a whore for doing it," Salestrom admits. "Maybe it's wrong, but it works for me. It seems to make people happy, and it satisfies my urge to capture a feeling about a beautiful place. It's also something people can listen to and go, 'Wow, I'd like to go see what that place is all about.'"

Allen Palmer of Vail Resorts says Salestrom is a key weapon in his company's sales arsenal. "He's very valuable to us," Palmer says. "He draws people in so we can sell to them. He's really our first line of attack."

Since 1994, Salestrom has done trade shows on behalf of Vail Resorts (which owns the Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Vail and Keystone ski areas) and Ski USA, a collective that attracts international clients to America's mountains. Getting foreign skiers to the States is important: A Breckenridge staffer reports that about 13 percent of that facility's visitors are international. To attract them, Salestrom has taken more than fifty trips overseas, logging 300,000 flight miles on his way to England, Scotland, Hawaii, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and other distant lands.

"Jim gets up there, and they see this local character, this songwriter singing from the heart. It gives more realism to their learning experience about Colorado," Palmer says. "Jim loves what he does; that's why people believe him more than they believe me."

Salestrom's music also helps his employers cut through the din of large-scale conventions, where they compete with everything from standard sales-booth presentations to airborne daredevils soaring on man-made powder. His shtick gives show attendees cause to pause for a moment.

"I'm a part of the sales team," Salestrom says. "I'm a liaison between the people who are walking by and the people who are trying to hand you a brochure and talk to you about it. A lot of my work takes place during the breaks -- talking to people, telling them about what it's like here." Fortunately for him, it's an easy sell. "I really love the mountains. I love skiing. It's easy for me to tell people that it's pretty here and geared toward people that want to be outside and have fun."

At his convention shows, Salestrom plays a mix of acoustic background music, original tunes and covers by singer-songwriters including John Denver, Harry Chapin and Don McLean. He also offers American rock standards by Buddy Holly, Elvis and others. His own songs are packed with idyllic mountain images in which Coloradans run through glades of green with flowers in their snow-kissed hair and love in their hearts: "Genuine Colorado," commissioned by the City of Breckenridge, sings the praises of life in that town; "Where the Mountains Touch the Sky" (from Salestrom's 1994 CD, The Great Adventure) reminds listeners that "it's clearer here where the air is thin and you start to realize/You were born for the mountains." Some of the songs come across as sentimental chamber-of-commerce greeting cards. That's the whole idea.

"I've written songs that sound like commercials, but they're heartfelt," says Salestrom. "I tend to try to write things that have multiple use, by design, with an eye toward making a buck and supporting what I do. If it works as a song and as a commercial, I don't see anything wrong with that."

Salestrom spends about two months a year traveling as a musical marketer. When he's not on the road, he tours the state and the country and spends time with his wife and family in Denver and Breckenridge, the two towns he now calls home. (He still loves Breckenridge, but he says it's "gotten real expensive and glittery. But the people that live here are really hardy. They're strong, strong-minded and opinionated, and I'm really grateful to a lot of them.") He occasionally snags a choice non-Colorado-related gig: Recently, he performed one of his songs, "We're Americans, We Want Peace," for members of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Many of Salestrom's for-hire tunes work well in non-trade-show settings, a fact that helps him straddle the line between art and commerce. "People who paint -- if they find out that people like daisies in their paintings, they keep putting daisies in their paintings," he says. "I don't think that's wrong. It's all about finding your style and finding a way to support something you really love. But my heart's in it. I love what I do. I'm not just doing it to please somebody with a paycheck. Nine times out of ten, that doesn't work."

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