Singer-songwriter Hal Ketchum, the 71st member of the Grand Ole Opry, combines rock, folk, and country strains in songs that explore everything from the darker side of relationships to the frustrations of the working class. Ketchum, who was a carpenter for more than a decade before he started playing and singing professionally, began his country music career in his mid-30s. Since then the silver-haired musician has found stardom in Nashville and enthusiastic audiences elsewhere through his songs of heartache, desperation, and fragile love.
Country Music magazine contributor Bob Allen wrote: “In their best moments … [Ketchum’s] performances hook you and hold you and simply won’t let you go. Palpable intimations of fear, helplessness, desire, compulsion and confusion all swirl just beneath the music’s seemingly placid surface…. Ketchum’s singing… sounds … hushed and effortlessly compelling. “Los Angeles Times reviewer Mike Boehm praised the artist for his “simple, plain-spoken songwriting approach that tries to take a closer, more personal look at emotional situations than you’ll find in most of the cliched, surface-oriented stuff churned out by Nashville song mills.”
Ketchum was born and raised in Greenwich, New York, a small town nestled in the Adirondack Mountains near the Vermont border. His world was as insular as that of the frustrated teens he sings about in his hit song “Small Town Saturday Night.” He told the Chicago Tribune: “Where I grew up, because the towns are separated by 8 or 10 miles of mountainous terrain, I never knew anybody in the next town until I was 18 or 19 years old. Exceptplaying againstthemon a football team.” Ketchum went on to describe himself as a “game” teen who was “always looking for some way to tear it up a little bit.”
The Ketchum household was a musical one. The singes er’s father liked country and bluegrass music; his mother preferred popular singers such as Frank Sinatra. Ketchum told Country Music that he was particularly affected by his mother and her perceptions. “She had g multiple sclerosis and went through some real hard periods,” he recalled. “She had to perceive her own mortality. I spent a great deal of time with her when she ti was incapacitated, and she had a great deal to teach I my brother and I before she went on her way. And all the things I perceive and write and sing about and the things I’m drawn to are relative to the philosophy I got from her in a very formative period of my life.”
As a young man Ketchum dabbled in music, playing
For the Record…
Born Hal Michael Ketchum, April 9, 1953, in Greenwich, NY; son of a newspaper linotype operator; married second wife, Terrell Tye, September 16, 1991; children: (first marriage) one daughter, one son.
Carpenter and cabinetmaker in New York, Vermont, and Gruene, TX, 1970-87; country singer, songwriter, and guitar player, 1981—. Cut first album with Watermelon Records, Austin, TX, 1986; signed with Curb Records, Nashville, TN, 1991.
Selected awards: Single of the year citation from Radio & Records magazine, 1991, for “Small Town Saturday Night”; inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Curb Records, 47 Music Sq. E., Nashville, TN 37203.
banjo in a bluegrass ensemble and drums in a rock band. Performing was strictly a hobby, however. Trained in carpentry, he made a living as a furniture craftsman and cabinetmaker. One favorite profit-making venture was restoring old houses. The artist told Country Music that he and his first wife used to “buy a house that I could get for next to nothing and live in the kitchen for a year or two while we fixed the rest of it up.”
Received Music Education in a Dance Hall
In the early 1980s, Ketchum moved his wife and two young children south to Texas, where he continued to support the family by doing carpentry work. In 1982 they bought a house near Gruene, a historic town with a thriving music scene. On his very first night in his new home, Ketchum heard music wafting in through the bedroom window.
He left the house to investigate and discovered a dance hall nearby that played host to such notable artists as Asleep at the Wheel, Townes Van Zandt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Lyle Lovett. Ketchum began to spend most of his spare time at the hall, absorbing performances that inspired him to try his own hand at singing and songwriting. “The whole experience ended up being like a four-year college course in music for me, with some of the best teachers in the world,” he told Country Music.
By 1985 Ketchum was earning pocket money playing in small Texas clubs. One night Jerry Jeff Walker caught Ketchum’s act and invited the erstwhile carpenter to open some show dates for him. The following year Ketchum released an album, Threadbare Alibis, on a small Texas label. He also worked more club dates and folk festivals, dodging audience requests for popular country fare in favor of his own quirky songs. “There were some down times, but I never quit,” he noted in the Chicago Tribune. “I’m just a little hard-headed. There were occasions when I thought I might just stop by the side of the road and smash my guitar against a tree. Usually it would be about 3 o’clock in the morning after playing someplace where everybody had wanted to hear songs they’d heard before.”
Recording artist Pat Alger introduced Ketchum to esteemed country-folk producer Jim Rooney in 1987. It was Rooney who convinced Ketchum to move to Nashville. For Ketchum, the decision to relocate brought personal pain: his wife and children stayed behind in Texas, and he was eventually divorced. “I was enthralled with being on stage and singing my own songs,” he explained in the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t know anything about the music business, and it was difficult to reassure somebody else about something I didn’t understand.”
Ketchum signed with the independent label Curb, engaged Rooney and Allen Reynolds as his producers, and released his album Past the Point of Rescue in 1991. That album has since yielded four Top Ten country hits: “Past the Point of Rescue,” “Five O’Clock World,” “I Know Where Love Lives,” and “Small Town Saturday Night.” In “Small Town Saturday Night”—a typical Ketchum excursion into despair and frustration—restless teenagers seek release from the confining boundaries of their small-town lives.
Ketchum told the Washington Post: “As an up-and-coming musician, you spend a long time just looking for the door. You go through a naive, trial-and-error process before you realize this is not a magic show; this is a lot of work. You have to say to your family, Til see you three days a week this summer, if I’m lucky.’ You have to put a lot of personal habits and desires aside. You have to overcome a lot of self-doubt. Then one day the door opens, and you’re suddenly in this big room with all these legendary personalities. It’s like going to a dinner party in a better part of town than you’ve ever been before; it takes a while to get comfortable. But if you just relax and be yourself, all the rewards eventually come to you.”
One reward that Ketchum has reaped is membership in the Grand Ole Opry, the ultimate benchmark of country stardom. Ketchum was inducted into the Opry in 1994, after his three Curb albums, Past the Point of Rescue, Sure Love, and Every Little Wordhad collectively sold in excess of a million copies.
The world according to Hal Ketchum is not necessarily a very happy place. In his songs, homeless families live in cars while searching fruitlessly for work; a longshoreman gets drunk and pines for his lost love; a brokenhearted lover feels that he is “wasting God’s time” praying for reconciliation with his sweetheart. Ketchum delivers these songs in a “verge-of-a-teardrop” baritone, to quote Los Angeles Times contributor Boehm, with an occasional growl or yodel for punctuation.
Ketchum contributes a few of his own songs to each album and says that he works in bursts whenever he is inspired. “I just seem to have an open channel: occasionally something comes rushing through,” the artist explained in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Sometimes I’ll work on two or three songs at once; there’s no pushing. I return to the well, check my traps; I just try to stay open. I write when and where I can, as long as I have something to write with and something to write on.”
Ketchum typically spends between 250 and 300 nights on the road each year, performing with his band, the Alibis. Married again, to a Nashville businesswoman, the former carpenter is still somewhat bewildered by his success in country music. “I’m sitting on this flat rock and catching my breath,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s a short life and a small planet, and I’m really enjoying it.”
Threadbare Alibis, Watermelon, 1986.
Past the Point of Rescue, Curb, 1991.
Sure Love, Curb, 1992.
Every Little Word, Curb, 1994.
Chicago Tribune, August 30, 1991; January 10, 1994.
Country Music, January/February 1994.
Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1991; May 29, 1993.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 27, 1992.
USA Today, December 15, 1992.
Washington Post, August 5, 1994.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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