Preaching the Summit
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.
"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."
In 1994, Beth Sharp, a former director of international public relations for Ski the Summit (a now-defunct marketing collective that once enlisted Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin as clients), was the first to hire Salestrom for a foreign trade show. As the conference progressed, travel journalists bored by predictable PR tactics were won over by Salestrom's music.
"These people would stay until two in the morning singing songs about the praises of Breckenridge and Colorado," Sharp recalls. "It was a better way of delivering our message than through someone in the marketing department. Plus, his love for it all is very genuine."
Following Sharp's lead, Bernie Weichsel of Ski USA hired Salestrom in the mid-'90s.
"Music has a great, evocative way of putting people at ease," says Weichsel, who now serves as a consultant for the marketing company. "Jim epitomizes America, in the sense of good-heartedness and wholesomeness and good country and cowboy music. He's also one of the nicest guys to ever grace the planet. His impact was very good with overseas audiences."
Playing for overseas audiences was nothing new to Salestrom. In the mid-'70s, he was signed to CBS Records as a member of Timberline, a country-rock act formed in his home state of Nebraska. The band released one album (1977's The Great Timber Rush), toured the nation and played frequent gigs in Colorado ski towns. When the band broke up, Salestrom moved to Breckenridge.
His career got a boost in 1979 when Dolly Parton, for whom Timberline had opened, asked him to join her touring band as backup singer and guitarist. While most of Parton's sidemen stayed on for only a few months, Salestrom held his slot for eleven years, touring the world along the way. (Parton, he notes, never let her immense talents go to her head: "She used to say, 'Everybody in show business has to have a gimmick. I was really lucky. I have two.' She was the most clever, witty person.") During his tenure with Parton, Salestrom made numerous television and movie appearances alongside the country star, including singing the opening tune in the film version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. He also worked as a sideman with such heavies as Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Pure Prairie League and Kenny Rogers.
Meanwhile, Salestrom maintained residency in Summit County, built his solo career and played with a few bands (including the Wild Jimbos, which enlisted Runaway Express frontman Jim Ratts and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Jimmy Ibbotson). He also spent a lot of time in the studio: His recorded output now totals twenty albums and CDs, many of which are still in print. (His current disc, Safe Home, and most of his other recordings are available through jimsalestrom.com.) But even as his own songwriting style emerged, Salestrom remained a loyal follower of John Denver, whom he met as a teenager while working as a stagehand at Red Rocks. Later he became friends with Denver and was invited to sing with him on many occasions. Since Denver's death in a plane crash in 1997, Salestrom has maintained ties with the singer's family and former bandmates and crew.
"When I was in high school, to a huge faction, John Denver music wasn't cool," says Salestrom. "And I know why they didn't like it. It was kind of hokey and syrupy and positive. And those were the reasons why I liked it.
"I know that there are a lot of people in Colorado who are sick of hearing people say, 'Oh, I moved to Colorado because of John Denver and "Rocky Mountain High."' I understand all those things. But I always loved the guy. He was a great entertainer who could break down the big wall between the audience and the stage."
That love for Denver's music did present a few personal drawbacks in the early days. "[Timberline] didn't get signed to CBS for two years because they thought I sounded too much like him," Salestrom says. "It was like the kiss of death." Today, however, the late musician's songs are particularly popular with Salestrom's international audiences. While taking a taxi to a trade-show gig in Berlin a couple of years ago, he recalls, Salestrom was asked by a cab driver what kind of music he played. "I said, 'Folk music. You know, "Country road, take me home..."' And then the taxi driver, in some strange Germanic accent, starts going, 'West Virginia...' You can go anywhere in the world and sing a little bit of that tune, and everybody knows what it is."
Salestrom has had plenty of opportunities to test his theory.
"It's really been fun. I've had the opportunity to see the world," Salestrom says. "I love playing and I love people and I love traveling, so it's the best of all worlds. As a musician, you've got to cast out a lot of lines and hope you catch a fish. I'm really grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to go out in the world and play."
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