PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
March 20, 2007

Soulful Country Music Man

by Jim Newsom

When you think of country music hotspots, Longford, Ireland, is not the first place that pops into your mind. But that’s where Hal Ketchum called me from, in the middle of a three week tour of the British Isles.

“I started coming over in 1993,” he said. “I recorded a song called ‘Past the Point of Rescue,’ which is an Irish song. So I’m kinda like a red-headed stepchild over here. They love me, and I love them back.

“Look at the chronology of country music. It started with Irish reels and jigs. It makes a lot of sense and the crowds here are just wonderful.”

Ketchum, who brings his songs and his band to the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts Saturday night, grew up in the Adirondack region of New York, north of Albany. Music played an important role in his formative years:

“My dad was really into the Bakersfield stuff, so I heard it every day. He would put it on in the morning before work and he put it on when he got home, so it was always there. But we also had Count Basie and Duke Ellington, Jim & Jesse and great bluegrass records, Ray Charles records. My parents had a very eclectic approach and it taught me that music is music. As a listener, I was very blessed to be in a household where anything went, from Charlie Parker to Charlie Pride.”

After high school he headed south, first to Florida, then to the burgeoning music scene in Austin, Texas.

“I had some friends who said you’ve got to go to Austin,” he explained. “I’m glad I took their advice. When I got there, there was Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle, Townes Van Zant, some great writers who inspired me the minute I arrived. I knew that I was in the right place. It’s important in terms of anybody’s growth—if you fall in with some guys that are doing really well, it raises the bar. You better have something to say!”

But Nashville remained the holy grail of country music, and in the mid ‘80s he headed in that direction.

“My Nashville experience is probably unique,” he said. “When I first started going to Nashville, I was living with [legendary songwriter] Harlan Howard. I had met him in Austin and he invited me. He said, ‘I know you’re coming up. You’re trying to get a publishing deal or a record deal. So just stay at my house.’

“So I’m staying with Harlan Howard and I’m sitting in the living room at night with Harlan and Waylon Jennings and Allen Reynolds and Jim Rooney, like a pride of lions. They said, ‘Son, listen twice and talk once, maybe you’ll learn something here.’

“So my Nashville experience really wasn’t typical in that sense. I didn’t go there in sort of a naïve fashion and try to make something happen. It was already happening before I got there. Those guys were like, we’re gonna take care of you now and hopefully keep you from making too many mistakes.”

The country music business was entering a transition time as the giants of the genre would soon be bumped off the air by the “new country” format with its pretty young things and interchangeable hat acts. But the early ‘90s were not yet totally formulaic, and Ketchum’s soulful vocals and working-man sensibilities found a comfortable slot on the country charts, beginning a five-year run with his 1991 debut single, “Small Town Saturday Night.”

“I got a record deal when I was thirty eight years old!” he exclaimed. “I had a life; I’m a cabinet maker by trade, so I had my day job. But I’m one of those guys that just kept swingin’—every Friday and Saturday night I was playing somewhere up until then. I remember somebody called me an overnight sensation, and I said, ‘Well yeh, but it was a hell of a long night!’

“I can’t put enough emphasis on the fact that I was hanging out with people who said, ‘There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors here, there’s a lot of hype and show biz. If you want to do this, you can do it, but they’ll steal your heart if you let ‘em.’ But I tried to adapt and develop a lifestyle that works with it. And I feel like I’ve done that. A couple of years ago I thought, wow, man, I won the lottery here. I’ve got the job that I wanted since I was three years old so I better enjoy it.”

He’s still enjoying it, recording for a major Nashville label, writing songs and following his own instincts:

“That’s one of the gems that Harlan gave me. I was sitting around at Harlan’s and I played a song called ‘Someplace Far Away,’ a folk song. And he looked at me and said, ‘That’s it; that’s where you need to go.’ Prior to that, I’d played him two or three things that were just clever. And he said, ‘One thing you need to bear in mind as a songwriter is that it’s all been said before. If you can just learn to say it from your own perspective in some kind of honest fashion, people will gravitate to it. Because we’re all telling the same story, but if you do it from your own heart and your own perspective, people will get it.’

“And it was like a light came on. As all young writers do, I was trying to write the definitive song. And he really liberated me just by saying it’s all been said before—love and sex and death and money—all the subject matter’s been covered. You just find your place in it.

“Townes Van Zant told me years ago that there’s two kinds of music—there’s the blues and there’s ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.’ I love that line.”

And Hal Ketchum loves what he’s doing.

“Every night’s a joy,” he said. “I’m in some little town in Ireland tonight. There’s a funky old hotel and there’s a big ballroom, a place where people have been coming and dancing and carrying on for 150-200 years. And we’ll go in there tonight and we’ll burn ‘em down. It’s a great job.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.