with Travis Linville
Five years ago, Hal Ketchum packed up his guitars and left Nashville, turning his back on a successful, 20+ year career in country music. He'd already sold more than 5 million albums, racking up a half-dozen Top 10 hits including staples like "Small Town Saturday Night" and "Hearts Are Gonna Roll" along the way. But Ketchum was exhausted, and his multiple sclerosis, a condition that often left him partially paralyzed, wasn't making matters any easier. He wanted to go home. And that's exactly what the singer/songwriter did, heading back to Texas for some peace, quiet, and serious introversion."I was hiding out," he admits. "I'd been in the public for so long. I didn't even go into town; I had my daughter bring me groceries. I develop a form of agoraphobia, really. I found pleasure in watching the stars at night and watching the sun during the afternoon. I also put out a lot of bird feeders and basically talked to myself all day long."It was a relaxing time. Try as he might, though, Ketchum couldn't stop his musical wheels from spinning. As he sat on the porch of his home a renovated, 19th century grist mill in the middle of the Texas Hill Country he began documenting everything he saw. He jotted down the memories that crossed his mind, too. Before long, new songs began appearing. The process felt entirely different from Ketchum's final years in Nashville, back when songwriting had been a job. This time around, songwriting was something more. It was personal. It was casual. It was also rallying cry for Ketchum, who decided he wasn't ready to give up music, after all.Those new songs became the foundation of Ketchum's newest album, I'm the Troubadour. Recorded in a series of single takes, I'm the Troubadour is the sound of an artist finding his own redemption in the strum of an acoustic guitar, the boom of a kick drum, and the trill of an upright piano. It's an album inspired by years of struggle, performed by a songwriting legend who's glad to finally get his groove back.On I'm the Troubadour, Ketchum ditches the country rulebook and tackles a combination of folk, blues, and soul music instead, tying the whole thing together with the rootsy rumblings of his studio band whose members include guitarist Kenny Grimes and drummer Rick Richards and the same croon that helped make him a permanent member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1994. I'm the Troubadour also marks his first release for Music Road Records, an Austin-based label co-run by folk artist Jimmy LaFave.Strangely enough, the latest release from Ketchum now 61 years old brings to mind the thrill of his earliest albums. Back then, Ketchum was a young cabinet maker from Gruene, TX, who wrote his own songs about love, longing, and life in the American South. He hit the country market shortly after artists like Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, and Travis Tritt, three likeminded troubadours who also wrote their own material. A bemused Earle called the movement "the great credibility scare of 1990," laughing at the fact that country music typically a conservative genre was suddenly being steered by young, creative wild men.I'm the Troubadour has a similar sound, a left-of-center immediacy that makes it one of the most important albums in Ketchum's career. After logging nearly two decades on the roster of Curb Records, Ketchum has earned the right to call his own shots. He isn't following any rules. He isn't catering to any trends. Instead, he's simply following his muse wherever it leads, from the bluesy, roadhouse rock & roll of the title track a biographical song about touring across the country, one stage at a time to the jazzy swell of "New Mexican Rain." Meanwhile, he also puts an updated stamp on two of his older tunes, even turning "I Know Where Love Lives" into a surprise duet with blues singer Tameca Jones."I'd reached a point during my time in Nashville where I'd fallen into that mill worker mentality, where you're only as good as your last record," Ketchum remembers. "If the phone didn't ring for two days, I was crushed. I'd worked myself into this odd place, where you have to be validated by your previous accomplishments. To be liberated from that kind of pressure is really fantastic. The pressure's off now. I'm just old Hal now. I'm 61 years old, and I still have a lot to say."Half a decade ago, Ketchum thought he'd permanently closed the book on his songwriting career. Thankfully, I'm the Troubadour starts a new chapter.
$20 - $25
This is no ordinary artist bio... but then Hal Ketchum is no ordinary artist.
First of all, he possesses, as noted by USA Today, "the most effervescent voice in country music" - but of course you already knew that.More to the point, when we joined Hal at the Curb Records office in Nashville last February, his new album had yet to be titled. In fact, it had yet to be finished. He hadn't even made final decisions on which songs to record.
"Actually," he said,"we might cut a whole other ten and start all over."
We laugh - it is absurd to talk about an album that's still in its early stages. Still, Ketchum makes it clear that none of this worries him. He's taking his time on this one. And he knows that when it is finished, it'll be the album he was meant to make at this stage of his life.
How does he know this? Simple: The seeds have been planted and he can feel them grow.
The most obvious of these is its first single, "Just This Side of Heaven," which debuted in January at number 58 on Billboard. Everything about this song is right for Ketchum: Its message is on target. The melody and the musicians lock together in an inspired dance. Most important, it moves him to sing at the peak of his power - and, this being Hal Ketchum, that's a lot of peak, so to speak.
What about that seed metaphor? It's simple, but it's different - revolutionary, even. After all, Ketchum has already conquered country music through playing by its own rules:
* a quick ticket to fame with his first single, "Small Town Saturday Night," which hit number one, and gold debut album, Past the Point of Rescue, in 1991;
* a subsequent string of hits, including but not limited to 'I Know Where Love Lives,' 'Hearts Are Gonna Roll,' 'Stay Forever,' 'Five O'Clock World,' 'Sure Love,' and 'I Miss My Mary', adding up to fifteen hits in the top ten - and five of those in the top five;
* more than four million total CD sales;
* membership in the Grand Ole Opry since 1994;
* covers of his own songs by artists as varied as Neil Diamond and Trisha Yearwood...
But he's also done things his way, from performing at a concert of his music set to dance by the Nashville Ballet to continuing his lifelong interest in woodworking to exhibiting original artworks at a prestigious gallery in New Mexico .
And when it suits him to plant a different kind of seed, he'll do that -just as he was doing even as we spoke about his upcoming album.
"In the past, the rule was: Cut a record and then pick the single," he explains. "This time it's: Pick the single and then build a record around it. You can build a record around a singular voice - and I'm speaking of 'voice' on two levels, not just the audible but also the philosophical."
Hal Ketchum is a builder. He was, on this cold February morning in Nashville, in the midst of building a new porch onto his house... "building" a new painting in the studio he keeps next to his music room at home... and building the spirit and substance of his album. What makes this interesting is that at this moment he had no idea where his endeavors would take them - but every confidence that each destination would make his efforts worthwhile.
Of course, that leaves us at an interesting point too, assigned to complete a new bio of this multifaceted entertainer, who had come to country music as a young upstate New Yorker, began playing drums at age fifteen, and wound up writing songs, playing dance hall gigs, and working full-time as a cabinetmaker in San Marcos before moving on to Nashville and claiming his place among the stars.
That's all old news, of course. The new news is that Ketchum is back with his first album in two years. And be sure that whatever ends up on it is the product of a master builder, a conscientious planter of seeds, and an artistic range that's rare in country or any other kind of music.