JAM Magazine Main Features

Hal Ketchum

Small-town Artist Hits the Big Time

New York-born singer-songwriter Hal Ketchum is relaxing aboard his tour bus, taking in the sounds of a Tom Petty CD, after the second of two shows at Denton's Benchmark Club. And upon observing his low-key, amiable demeanor, one would never know he was fast becoming a threat on the country charts, thanks to his No. 1 debut single titled "Small Town Saturday Night"

Just as he appears in his music videos, the denim-clad Ketchum is handsome, with a perpetual but quiet smile gracing his lips. He offers visitors beverages, a sampling from a vegetable tray and he signs autographs. Lots of 'em — for concertgoers, club personnel and the police­men who guard his privacy. All in all, he is a most gracious country star on the rise, and one who is proud to credit the Texas experience, music scene and its bountiful supply of wordsmiths for helping him become who he is today.

Now touring in support of Past The Point of Rescue his freshman disc for Curb Records, and "I Know Where Love Lives," the album's fast-rising second single, Ketchum, 37, is beginning to realize the constraints and time-consuming effects of fame via the country music world. But he's not complaining by any means, because now is the moment for which he's worked a lifetime.

Tracing his start back to his days as a 15-year-old drummer in a rhythm 'n' blues trio, Ketchum said, "My dad signed a permission slip to let me play because I was underage. It was a great sociology lesson for me to sit back in a little beer joint behind a set of drums — I'd get four hours of the world going by."

Nevertheless, the call of the Lone Star State is strong, and Ketchum answered that call when he moved to Gruene in 1981, and it was that move that changed his life.

'The night I was moving into the house I'd bought there, I heard live music from somewhere in the dis­tance. I got in my truck and drove into town and discovered this dance hall," explained the one-time carpenter," (and) I started going there regularly. On Sunday afternoons, they had great writers like Butch Hancock, Lyle Lovett and Townes Van Zandt that would come in and play. It made me concentrate on playing guitar and writing songs — that place became a real school for me."

The rest, as they say, is quickly becoming a matter of modern-day music history, because when it came to Ketchum and his music, he was past the point of rescue. And that's lucky for the music world at large.

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JAM: How much of the material on your debut album, Past The Point of Rescue, did you write.

HAL: Seven. Three that I wrote by myself and four co-writes.

JAM: Did your label pick your co-writers for you the first time out or did you?

HAL: No, I do it myself. And, really, it's more relative to my relationship with my publishing company. Typically, I write with people who I have sort of a musical interest with. Gary Burr, for instance. I love Gary's writing, his style, so I told my publisher I'd like to write with Gary. My publisher calls Gary's publisher, and they throw us in a room together and see what happens, basically.

I ve known (songwriter) Pat Aler for years, so Pat and I have written together several times. Dave Mallett, I've known for several years, and we write for I the same publishing company. Usually the best songs, I think, that come out of those co-writing experiences are generally with people you know and admire stylistically.

JAM: Did you write the material before you landed a A deal with Curb Records?

HAL: Yeah, I had a publishing deal two years prior to getting my record deal, and I was going to Nashville and writing with Pat and with Dave Mallett. I moved to Nashville two years ago ... and before that I lived in Gruene (Texas). 

JAM: So did someone "discover" you or did you just get out there and work and hustle for it?

HAL: I worked for the deal, quite frankly. One of the reasons publishers sign writers is to try and get the artists' a deal, because it's an outlet for songs from the publishing company. When you get a record deal, if you're a writer, invariably you're going to cut a lot of your own songs, and it eliminates that need to go out and pitch songs.

I've been working at it a long time. I did a four-song demo with (producer) Jim Rooney that we shopped to a variety of labels, and Curb was the most interested of all the labels. Or, had the most to offer me as an artist, I should say.

JAM: What's a "long time" to you? Some people say two years is a long time, some say 10 years.

HAL: Umm, I think 10 years is a pretty long time. I mean, I really set my sights on this 10 years ago.

JAM: Now do you think that if you would have been signed back then you would have been ready for the success you've encountered today?

HAL: No, no.

JAM: Why do you say that? You didn't hesitate at all when you answered.

HAL: Well, because when I listen to the stuff I was writing back then, I was rather immature as a writer. And I think that if you get into somebody's head too soon — I think this is typical of a lot of signings — it's real easy to influence a new artist. New artists are extremely easy to sway in a directional sense.

A lot of good writers I know are very open and broad people and, consequently, can be led over here to look at this deal or led over here to look at this emotion, and it's

real easy to get confused. I think that if I would have been signed 10 years ago, I probably would have been rather confused — or more confused [laughs].

JAM: Or maybe out of a deal by now?

HAL: Yeah, exactly. Right, I mean, there are people praying to get deals and there are people praying to get out of deals, you know? ... It is unfortunate, and I'll tell you what, it's a tough run. You know, if you know the whole process, there are a lot of little tumblers. It's very, very rare that they'll kind of drop into the right slots at the right time.

I've been very lucky. I worked with two producers (Jim Rooney and Allen Reynolds) who understand that the song is the star, and if you cut good songs, you stand a helluva lot better chance of surviving the circum­stances that go with being in the music business. If you've got a strong album, then you've got a shield. You've got something that you can hold up artistically and say, 'This is what I represent, and this is what represents me," and it'll pull you through the hard times.

JAM: When you were recording the album in the studio, did any of the songs strike you as hits at that time? Any real standouts?

HAL: Umm, it was interesting. Really, I mean it was an evolutionary process. We started out with 16 potential album cuts, and knowing that we were going to have 10 in the finished product, we started cutting. Really, the first five or six songs we cut really took. You know, we knew we had a sense of direction, but they were so good that we actually stopped the sessions.

We reconsidered, after cutting what we thought were the top five or six songs, and we raised the level of artistry and musicianship to a point where we had to go back and re-evaluate the strength of the rest of the material that we were gonna cut. And we really eliminated a lot of material at that point, and I went back in an wrote two additional cuts — "Long Day Comin"' and "Don't Strike A Match (To The Book Of Love)" that are on the record that weren't initially candidates. We felt like we'd set a precedent. Our standards were increased by the quality of what we were getting in the studio, so we kind of re-evaluated.

JAM: Did you eliminate any songs that you didn't want to lose, though?

HAL: There were a couple of songs that I was real excited about that didn't make the grade, basically. They just didn't stick to the wall for one reason or another. They were not thematically in line or stylistically in line with the rest of the album. I guess what I'm basically trying to say is that we defined, in the first five or six songs that were master sessions, we kind of defined the overall feel of the album and found that we were in a position to look for a waltz, for instance, which is something we hadn't even considered before.

We had strength in the high end, we had tempo songs, we had certain criteria, and we found that in doing that, we could define what the rest of the material kind of could be. A couple songs (excluded from the album) are really very good songs, and I hope that somebody cuts 'em someday, or maybe I'll try 'em on the next record — I don't know. I think a lot of songwriters will probably tell you that they're not necessarily the best judge of their own material. I mean, when I write a song it's my favorite song — for about a week.

JAM: You're referring to yourself as a songwriter. Do you consider yourself a songwriter first and foremost, not a recording artist?

HAL: Yes. Umm, I think I've brought both of them along pretty well. Hove to sing, I've always sung, I would always sing, no matter where I am or what I'm doing. That's just the way I kind of evolved musically, but, yeah, I am a songwriter, and I think a pretty respectable one.

JAM: I've seen both of your videos, "Small Town Saturday Night" and "I Know Where Love Lives"on Country Music Television a lot. How important has video been to your career?

HAL: I think Rodney Crowell said that video is the album cover of the '90s, and I would agree with that. It's extremely impor­tant. We're seeing such a surge of new artists because, where it used to take five years for a guy to go out, beat his head against the wall, tour and play and play and play before the public put a name with a face and a style of music, now you can turn on the TV and there that rtry is. And you can say, ' I like that" or "I don't like that," and you can pretty much formulate a quick opinion.

It's (video) opened a lot of doors for me. By definition, the style of video that I've done, I've been very personally involved in the videos. I think I recognized them as a remarkable promotional tool very early on. I don't ever want them to detract from the song. I don't think videos ever will become the predominant factor, because the song still is the star. If you can listen to a song five years after it's been cut, if it still stands up and still gets ya, then it was a great song. I don't think videos will ever necessarily have that power.

JAM: You mentioned to me that the video for "I Know Where Love Lives" was shot in Fredericksburg, Texas. Why return to Texas to make a video when you could do one in Nashville?

HAL: Yeah, it would have been move economically feasible to make it in Nashville, but it's important to me that there's some sort of spiritual thread through all this stuff. And the barn we used in "I Know Where Love Lives" is right next to the recording studio on this big ranch (Loma Ranch), where I used to go hang out and watch the world go by.

I'd go to this barn to sort of get centered up, so it was important to bring some element of the past.

JAM: How long did you live in Texas?

HAL: I was in Texas from 1978 to '89.

JAM: You were born in New York, but the press refers to you as a Texas. How do you feel?

HAL: Well, I consider myself a Texas songwriter, as strange as that may sound, because I didn't really start writing until I moved to Texas.... I'm very proud of the fact that I'm considered a Texas songwriter, because I came from a school, I think, of remarkable writers. The people that influenced me and the first people that were hearing anything that I was doing were Lyle Lovett, Butch Hancock, Townes Van Zandt, Joe Ely, Guy Clark ­- people who were encouraging me. They are great writers. Texas has a wealth of people who know the written word.

JAM: Do you keep up with your album's sales figures?

HAL: I don't really pay much attention to that. I m afraid to get too deep into that. lt's selling well ... and I'm very happy. I do watch the charts now. I never read Billboard or R&R (Radio & Record) until "Small Town Saturday Night."

JAM: What will the next single be?

HAL: I think "Past The Point Of Rescue." Does that work for you?

JAM: Yeah, I like that one. Igo through phases as to which is my favorite cut, and I do like that one now.

HAL: Do you? Welt, good. I think that it's the right call. And again, I hate to be too premeditated, but it's a good song and I think it'll work. A friend of mine (Nick Hanley) from Dublin, Ireland, wrote it, and he could use the dough, too. But I think it's a good call. I think good songs are fairly unpretentious and don't try to jump right at ya. They just allow you graciously to listen.

JAM: Are you setting goals now or taking a wait-and­see approach?

HAL: Well, we're kind of past that. I mean, we have to act on this success, so we're well past the wait-and-see. We're doing everything we can to take advantage of the momentum that we have. We're looking at a very, very heavy touring schedule for this next summer, I'm sure, that will get us to that next step.

We're going into the studio in January and mid-February to start cutting master sessions to get ready for the next album, even though that album may not be released until the end of the summer. We want to have things in place. I hate dead time. I'm easily bored, and I hate a day without any kind of stimulation, so we're really trying to keep things pumped.

JAM: What kind of changes has your success brought about in your personal life?

HAL: The element of recognition is becoming some­thing that I have to deal with, and I'm flattered that a lot of people do recognize me typically. Again, the power of video, I guess. The further in we go, the more that's gonna be the case, and I'm a very private person by nature. The writer in me is not so sure about that part, because it's harder to be invisible, it's harder to observe when you're being observed. There's an element of responsibility in it.

JAM: What would you like people to know about you?

HAL: I just want people to know that I'm very, very happy to be doing this, and that I'm celebrating life through this music. And I'm here to stay. lt's pretty simple.