BYU alumnus uses love of folk music to build a better world

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BYU alumnus and world-class folk musician Nate Keller is working to make a name for himself in the world of music.

Keller was born and raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is the second of 10 children and the proud uncle of dozens of nieces and nephews.

“My parents wanted us to learn bluegrass music … my mom went to a pawn shop and she bought a bunch of used instruments and put them on the floor and told us to pick our instruments,” Keller said. “I picked the banjo.”

Keller learned how to play banjo by just listening to recordings. His family did not have extra money to afford private lessons, but they managed to learn and play bluegrass music together for years, eventually leading them to go on tour. He said people loved to see them perform because they were a family.

While Keller was studying at BYU, he majored in construction management, with a minor in business. He took the advantage of resources on campus to pursue extracurricular activities such as plays and musicals. 

Being a banjo player gave Keller the chance to tour with the BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble. In the summer of 1991, he went to Europe for the first time with the team, he said. Keller said he made a lot of friends on the trip, particularly friends from West Africa. 

“This is 1991, so people didn’t speak English very much,” he said. Keller noticed the group from Senegal was not mingling with others because of the language differences, but he said this problem did not stop him from befriending the Senegalese group. With a chessboard he brought from home, he was able to break the ice in the crowd and exchange languages and cultures with the African performers.

Keller currently plays the bass in the Utah Valley Symphony and serves as their board president. He has performed as a banjo player in numerous international folk festivals around the world representing America in dozens of countries on different continents. His 8-year-old daughter, Eden, is who he said he misses the most when traveling abroad. 

Christina Hunt, the youngest child in the Keller family, said she used to get teased endlessly by her friends about playing bluegrass music with her family. After begging her parents over and over again, she was finally allowed to play other types of music. Thus, she was not a part of her family band or travel experience for many years, until Keller invited her to join Clog America once he became the music director for the group.

Hunt said, “Nate really instilled in me a love for folk music, and I wasn’t ashamed of our family band through his encouragement. But he said, ‘I didn’t feel like I had the time or desire to take on that responsibility’ when being called to serve the role of music director for Clog America.”

What motivated Keller is the fact he knew it would allow his siblings the opportunity to travel, and make them more unified as family, Hunt said.

Nate Keller, third from the left, and his sister Christina Hunt, fourth from the left, participated in the 2021 World Folkloriada in Russia. The Keller family possesses incredible musical talents and can be found supporting the arts around Utah. (Christina Hunt)

“He knows so many people but he makes you feel like the only person in the room,” said long-time friend and business partner David Osmond. “He’s a great resource to bounce ideas off of.” 

According to Osmond, Keller’s life experiences have helped make him a magnetic mentor and a wonderful friend.

Osmond said their values align because they both grew up in big musical families and appreciate their similar upbringings.

In addition, he said one of his greatest passions was promoting what he thinks is human goodness both domestically and internationally. He described himself as “a big patriot.”

What he said he loves most about this country is the fact that “America affords more liberties and personal freedoms to its citizens than anywhere else.” He said he has been working enthusiastically to help people understand the importance of maintaining personal liberties.

Though he does not participate in political affairs directly, Keller encourages open conversations about American principles and important national issues. For example, he founded and hosts an event called “Conservative Conversations” that has had guest speakers including Jon Huntsman Jr., former governor of Utah and ambassador to Singapore, Russia and China; and Utah’s newest Federal Congressman Burgess Owens. 

Nate Keller talks about working with Kyrgyzstan diplomats recently. He is hoping his ambassadorial works can be branched out to more countries in Central Asia. (Bella Li)

As the founder and director of the American Folk Ensemble, Keller said he leads a full and varied life with multiple identities. He said he chooses performers for the American Folk Ensemble based on their talents as well as ambassador skills because these musicians and dancers have the chance to promote human goodness through sharing love and stories around the world.

“He wants to see everyone in the world reach their full potential and fiercely fights for your right to do that, while anonymously donating to make it happen,” Hunt said in the birthday tribute she wrote for her older brother.

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