november 2008 Interview:

Hal Ketchum: A Sense Of Where He Is

'There's a level of resistance in having a record deal because when you have success, people start having great ideas for you. The key for me is to have my own ideas and find people who can help me execute those ideas and not draw me off the path too far with their ideas.'

Born and raised in the upstate New York town of Greenwich, Hal Ketchum grew up in a family not of musicians but of music lovers, who in his childhood exposed him to pretty much all the varieties of music extant, including classical. By age 14 he was a drummer playing locally in bars and taverns, and a few years, having taken up the guitar, formed an acoustic duo with his brother. Marriage to a wife who had a manifest intolerance for the cold, endless winters of northern New York spurred a move to San Antonio, where he found work as a cabinet maker and, on the side, began quietly pursuing his own muse as a solo artist, hanging out in clubs where he encountered gifted singer-songwriters such as Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, on their way up, all of whom befriended him and shared insights into their craft. Finally, he took the first 10 songs he had written, assembled some friends to support him, and recorded an album, Threadbare Alibis, released on the small but lively Watermelon label at the beginning of 1988. It didn't gain much attention at the time, but in the years to come Threadbare Alibis clearly established a path the young Ketchum continued to follow, to great success, and that has yet to come to an end.

Singing in a still developing but warm, throaty tenor full of the kind of soul that comes naturally from deep inside, by way of an acute sensitivity to the vicissitudes of life, Ketchum sketched out on that first long player the themes that continue to animate his work: the tumultuous experience of love in all its forms, from the obsessive to the toxic to the exalted; the burden of dreams; and the universal lessons gleaned from a rich, complicated family history. In "Someplace Far Away" we meet the father who sees an old photo of a wagon train heading westward and is stirred to fond memories of his own failed quest for something more than he had, whereas in the same song we learn that "the photo that made my father smile/made my mother cry," and glimpse the awful weight dreams can impose on others we claim to love most but abandon emotionally in our selfish pursuits; in both "Bobbie's Song" and "Christina" he paints vivid portraits of women who, against their better judgment, gave their hearts to men who failed them and paid the price in tarnished dreams; in "Black Burning Air" his evocation of a coal mine's fetid atmosphere, and the job's death-dealing hand, are so graphically and starkly rendered as to wallop like a roundhouse right when he describes the finality writ large on a plaque honoring a father and five other miners who perished for a lack of "that black burning air"; in "The Belgian Team," he sketches the now-uncannily timely details of a farmer losing his property to foreclosure and, as his life is parceled out to others in bits and pieces, reflecting on everything from the long hours sweating behind a plough to watching his animals bring new life into the world, and suggests in an enigmatic closing verse that the story is his grandfather's reality. The writing is unadorned, direct, straightforward, and rich in the foreshadowing of his characters' fates, honoring the Greek philosopher Heraclitus's maxim (spoken well in advance of it being the title of book by Sen. John McCain, who presumably was not around circa 450 B.C.), "Character is destiny."

Threadbare Alibis caught the attention of executives at Nashville's Curb Records, who signed the artist and put him in the studio with one of Music City's most acclaimed producers, Allen Reynolds (who had earlier steered Crystal Gayle to the chart's uppermost reaches and even earlier than that had written and produced one of the '60s' beloved pop hits, the Vogues' "Five O'clock World"). The result was 1991's career- establishing Past the Point of Rescue album, which not only unveiled several strong new Ketchum originals (the title track, "Old Soldiers," "I Know Where Love Lives," et at.) but also introduced him as a premier interpreter, who had the gift of immersing himself so totally in songs written by other writers that they seem to have come from his own pen, including his first hit single, Pat Alger and Hank DeVito's rollicking, note-perfect evocation of a certain American mindset in "Small Town Saturday Night" and, not least of all, his second hit single, a version of his producer's "Five O'clock World" that was toned down and more deliberately rendered than the original, driving version, which added a topical poignancy to the blue-collar aspect of the story that was muted in the context of the original's upbeat drive. In 1992 he issued an unqualified masterpiece in Sure Love, a marvel of assured original songwriting, impeccably chosen covers and striking arrangements that heightened the atmosphere of the character-driven songs. Pete Wasner and John Charles Quarto's "Mama Knows the Highway" fits into the Ketchum oeuvre by honoring a mother's infallible sense of place; Randy Handley's "Trail of Tears" chronicles the devastation, personal and tribal, visited on the Cherokees on their forced migration westward; one of the most touching songs in Ketchum's canon, "Daddy's Oldsmobile," meshes an soothing melody to a child's loving reminiscence of traveling in the family Olds to destinations unknown while the father searched for employment and assured the family better days were ahead-and the car would no longer have to be their home as well as their transportation; and the only song from Threadbare Alibis yet to be revisited, "Someplace Far Away," in a bit more lilting, countrified arrangement, closed the album on a proper note of somber reflection, given all the accounts preceding it of grand plans dashed and wayward hearts surveying the damage done.

ketchum'What I love about writing is that it seems to come from everywhere. My function here is to try to record it.'

Through the '90s and into the early 2000s, Ketchum's radio hits diminished to nothing following 1994's "Stay Forever" (written by the Heartbreakers' Benmont Tench for the album Every Little Word), but his artistic focus remained on continuing to use the album form conceptually and stay true to his instincts. Working with producers Allen Reynolds and Jim Rooney on Every Little Word, Ketchum chronicled the soul-numbing tedium of the road ("Another Day Gone," a co-write with Gary Nicholson; "That's What I Get for Losin' You," a co-write with Al Anderson; and "No Easy Road," a co-write with Hank McCullough) and its inevitable byproduct, the failed relationship ("Stay Forever," "Walk Away," another Ketchum-Nicholson co-write; "Veil of Tears") in the harshest material he had ever penned-and he was mostly hard on himself, seeming to have become the father in "Someplace Far Away" whose wanderlust wreaked havoc on his loved ones. But from that desperately lonely nadir, he returned in 1999 with the Stephen Bruton-produced meditation on love and loss, Awaiting Redemption, and followed that in 2001 with a more upbeat assessment of matters of the heart, as evidenced by the title, Lucky Man. Produced by one of the great contemporary American songwriters, Rodney Crowell, Lucky Man is a thoughtful investigation of love as salvation marked not only by several finely etched Ketchum originals on the topic at hand, but further fleshed out by two mesmerizing new Crowell tunes that Ketchum hit out of the park. All told, to date, Ketchum has logged 15 Top 10 singles and sold five million albums. Even physical setbacks have only marginally disrupted the flow of stories from his pen. He spent Christmas 1997 at the Betty Ford Clinic, kicking his addictions to drugs and alcohol ("I love opiates," he told the Nashville Scene's Michael McCall in May of 1998, "and I had started developing some very serious habits. I had turned to drugs and alcohol, and I don't drink well. I've got too much Indian blood in me. It ain't pretty. It ain't pretty at all. I just stayed stupid. I got real dumb about it."), and the next year was diagnosed with Acute Transverse Myelitis, which left him temporarily without the use of the left side of his body; more recently he's been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, the same disease that claimed his mother's life, but like Clay Walker before him, he presses on, uncomplaining and seemingly as strong as ever.

Last year, with little fanfare (save a note on his MySpace site), he released One More Midnight, in the U.K. only. This past September, though, he resurfaced with his strongest album since Awaiting Redemption, the self-produced and tellingly titled Father Time. In essence, it charts Ketchum's evolution as a songwriter, containing as it does material written over the course of his career, including his first original song, "The Preacher and Me," which was not included on Threadbare Alibis. Topically, it offers a piercing tale of a homeless man's despair in the album opening lament, "Invisible"; a co-write with Darrell Scott, "Ordinary Day," documenting the tedium of a waitresses' daily grind; another installment in his ongoing examination of love driving people to irrational behavior in the inexplicably bouncy "Millionaires' Wife," a story told by a fellow on Death Row of how he was seduced by a wealthy man's wife, who then persuaded him to murder her husband-upshot: she now lives on comfortably while he awaits the lethal needle; a grinding, bluesy number co-written with Al Anderson, "If You Don't Love Me Baby (Just Let Me Go)"; in the vein of "Trail of Tears," a stark look at our nation's tortured history in "Sparrow," his first literary visit to the Civil War in a tender song that mourns for the young lives lost, in timeless sentiments as apt now as they would have been in the 1860s; and the family history again in a touching triptych: "Yesterday's Gone" (which describes how both of his grandfathers withered away after the deaths of the wives to whom they had dedicated most of their lives), "The Day He Called Your Name" (concerning the death of his grandmother, who lived to be 100) and "Surrounded by Love," in which Ketchum's father reappears in a song marveling at how a family with so little in the way of material comforts was blessed with a surplus of supportive, unconditional love. And for good measure, he adds a comical, rather twisted take-partly in waltz time, partly as a western swing workout-on the skewed mindset of the immortal character created by Christopher Walken on Saturday Night Live, to wit, The Continental, in "Continental Farewell," and honors his Garden State-born wife in a tender cover of Tom Waits's "Jersey Girl." If Father Time has a striking immediacy in its clean, bright sonic presence, then credit Ketchum for not only having learned his lessons well and becoming an ace producer but also to the spontaneous nature of the project-it was recorded in two days flat, live to two-track, with hardly any overdubs or alternate takes, quite a remarkable feat by any measure but especially so considering the ambitious arrangements on several tracks employing a gospel chorus (haunting on "Invisible," rousing in a down-home, gritty way on "Millionaire's Wife") in addition to a basic band comprised of bluegrass and country stalwarts Bryan Sutton on lead guitar, Aubrey Haynie on fiddle, Dennis Crouch on bass, Eddie Bayers on drums, Darrell Scott on guitar, Paul Leim on drums, Russ Pahl on guitar, dobro and steel, and background singers Chip Davis, Angela Primm and Gale Mayes.

It was way past time to check in with Hal Ketchum and discuss Father Time in specific and the journey he's been on in general. We caught up with him one day at his home in Nashville, after he'd finished up one leg of a tour and was winding down to year's end before hitting the road again in January. Like the mama of whom he sang, this man knows the highway now by heart.

*** Judging from your liner notes on Father Time, you've included the first you ever wrote, "The Preacher and Me," and other songs have been penned through the years. In a sense it chronicles your evolution as a songwriter. Was that the aim of Father Time from the beginning, or did it arise from the material you chose?

Hal Ketchum: Really, I wanted to call it Holler Soul. People have always asked, "What kind of music do you play." Sheesh, I don't know. So I started calling it "holler soul." When you attempt to define something with something that requires a really long explanation, it's probably not a successful approach. When I submitted it to the label, my friend there looked at me like a pig looking at a wristwatch. So I said, "Well, how about Father Time?" Just it kind of jumped out of my head. It seems more appropriate now. It says a lot. I've always said getting in the music business is a hard thing to do, and staying in it seems to be even harder. So I think it's appropriate on a lot of levels.

I assume you have a lot of songs in notebooks and so forth. Some, as you indicate in your notes, had been road tested before being recorded, so I guess that was a factor in determining whether they got on the record.

Ketchum: Yeah, it did. I had a big pile going in. But what really led me to these songs was the group of people I chose to play on this record. I cut the record in two days-I cut it on a Thursday and Friday. I didn't sleep much Wednesday night because people were cautioning me, "You know, no one's done this in a long time. I don't know if it's gonna work." I said, "I don't know if it's gonna work, but we'll find out when we get there." So when I got in I knew I wanted to start with "Invisible," because I'd just written it. Gary Nicholson and I really liked it. So I went in assuming we'd spend two or three hours just trying to get some kind of sound. I played that song on acoustic guitar for Russ Pahl, he charted it, we passed out the charts, sat down and that's the first take. So we went in the control room and listened back and I thought, Okay, this is going to work. Because obviously these players are all masterful. The only demand from me was that everyone have the same mix in the headphones. You know, I'm dealing with these guys who are bluegrass aficionados; they come with their own dynamic. So nobody's going to get more of me in the phones-we're all on the same level playing field. And that seemed to work.
So we cut "Invisible" and it really started to make sense, almost like a show to me. I don't have a set list when I play anymore. I just start. So I sort of adopted that same approach on this record. Okay, "Invisible," boom. In the can; that's done. What's next? Well, I got that one about my grandfathers. Let's do that one next. So there were no criteria other than keeping everybody juiced up. Keeping the level of enthusiasm. Song to song I didn't know what I was going to do next. I had a big pile of songs, but it started to feel to like, What will draw the most out of everybody in the room next? So we cut "Yesterday's Gone," first take again. It really became the approach I take when I do a show. How's this thing building? There was as little preconception as possible. Because again, we didn't know going in if it was going to work, but again, I knew I had players I loved, and that's kind of all I knew. I started picking songs out of the air, you know.

How about the arrangement on "Millionaire's Wife"? That seems kind of ambitious for a spur of the moment thing, with the choir adding that gospel element. Seems like something that must have been carefully arranged beforehand.

Ketchum: Third song, first take. I swear, as God is my witness. By the time we got to that one, my theory was, Okay, let's amp it up a little. This is working. In talking to the players afterwards, everybody had the same apprehensions. So all 10 of us knew this was going somewhere, so let's just keep all the balls in the air.
I was sitting on a big couch in the studio, and Russ and I were charting, and I said, "'Millionaire's Wife,' let's take a swing at that." So as I'm charting it, the background singers were standing over there going, "Shoo-do-wop," so that's happening. Dennis Crouch is over there figuring his stuff out. So just as we were charting the song, I played it through maybe two or three times, Russ is writing the chart, by the time we rolled tape there was not a lot of dialogue going on. You take guys like Bryan Sutton and Aubrey Haynie, and they're like attached at the hip in there, doing harmony parts and stuff. We didn't spend any real time figuring this stuff out; everybody just brought their A game to every song. We cut on a Thursday and a Friday, at nine the first day, five the second day. I sat down Friday night with it and listened back through everything and thought to myself, I'm not even going to sequence this record. It's already sequenced. So it's in exactly the order we played them in. It was like, who am I to get in the middle of this? And also I felt there was some divine reason that it happened in that order, as improvisational as that sounds, that's the way it laid out. So let's let it be what it is. I was committed to letting it be what it was anyway, so why would I start moving 'em around?
Allen Reynolds taught me this years ago. Allen will write out the song titles on little pieces of paper and sit and kind of move 'em around. Do a rough sequence, then listen to it, maybe move 'em around some more. It's a lot of fun to do that. I kind of started to do that but then I said, "You know, this is it, man." That's just the way it laid, the way it rolled out.

I was amused by your notes on "Continental Farewell," in which you reveal it was inspired by Christopher Walken's Saturday Night Live character, The Continental. I wasn't sure anyone remembered that. One of my all-time favorites. The first time I listened to the song, I was knocked out by that beautiful waltz that opens it, and what a great melody you'd written. Then I keyed in on the lyrics and realized how twisted it is.

Ketchum: It's as sick as it can be. That's become the biggest icebreaker in the shows. I played it in Houston last Friday night in a big dance hall-a tonk, you know-and about halfway through the show I turned to the band-and again there's no set list-and I play with these great players from Austin, played with them for years-and I said, "Continental Farewell," and the bass player rolled his eyes, like, "Here we go, off the tracks." That entire dance hall was singing along by the second verse. So it works, man.

It does help to have a visual image of The Continental in mind, with the woman running to the door, trying to get out-

Ketchum: "No, my love, no!"

And all you ever saw of the woman was part of her arm reaching for the door.

Ketchum: It was beautiful. Just him. The whole point of that piece was just brilliant. Trying to lure this poor, unsuspecting woman into his arms. So yeah, this song had to be done.

But there is a recurring theme in your work. It can be traced all the way back to Threadbare Alibis and the original version of "Someplace Far Away" on that album, which you later reprised on one of your best albums of all, Sure Love, and continues on in Father Time. It's the presence of your family history in your music. At what point in your development as a songwriter did you find your family history to be resonant enough to become fair game for you as a writer?

Ketchum: I came to the realization after spending a lot of time with Harlan Howard. First of all, Threadbare Alibis is the first nine songs I ever wrote, other than "The Preacher and Me," which I didn't cut on that record. I firmly believe I lived in those periods. I have a real sense that I was there, in some other life form I was there. A lot of those phrases, like "black burning air," I was there, physically there. Going back to Harlan Howard, he said, "Write what you know." I'd play him these other songs, and they were clever. And like everybody who comes to Nashville, I had this overriding naiveté that you're gonna come up here and write the greatest, most unique thing that's ever been written. And Harlan would say, "Yeah, that's clever, but speak what you know. Write what you have a sense about." So that's what's kept me on the path. There's a level of resistance in having a record deal because when you have success, people start having great ideas for you. The key for me is to have my own ideas and find people who can help me execute those ideas and not draw me off the path too far with their ideas. It's kind of a challenge sometimes to stay in, but I've always been very resistant. I've never cut anything I didn't believe in at the time, even if I was wrong occasionally. I won't sing it unless I feel I can get inside the son of a bitch.

When you were growing up in upstate New York and playing in rock bands, were you drawn then to the music you eventually gravitated to and began writing?

Ketchum: No. No. No, never.

Then what spurred your move to Texas way back when?

Ketchum: Economics. I was married to a woman who was from Florida, and she didn't like the winter. Our pump kept freezing up. I was a cabinet maker by trade, and I had an offer to go to San Antonio. My sister in law had married a guy down there in San Antonio, and they kept bragging about how nice the weather was. I got a job in an architectural millwood shop in San Antonio, back during the oil boom in the late '70s. Went down there and had a custom bench, had a job, lived with my mother in law and more than anything just got out of the wintertime. I was playing a lot, I hadn't really written anything, but I was kind of working, a little R&B band, always playing. But the path has been really remarkable. It's really kind of amazing to me.

You have a beautiful song on Father Time, "Absolute Love," which references your father, who has also turned up in other songs in flattering ways. I think about this song in which you talk about the hardships the family endured, but you emphasize that there was plenty of love going around and how that was support enough for what money couldn't provide. I think back to "Daddy's Oldsmobile" on Sure Love. One of the things about that song is that you're pretty deep into it as a listener before you realize the singer's talking about his family living in the car, not just driving from one place to another. I saw a statement from your recently to the effect that "Daddy's Oldsmobile" was a true story.


American Originals: Ketchum with fellow ace songwriter Rodney Crowell, who produced and contributed two new songs to Ketchum's Lucky Man album. Ketchum calls Crowell's approach to producing 'fundamental,' and explains: 'Rodney never plays demos for the session guys. If you find a song you want to cut, he doesn't find a produced demo of that because he doesn't want anyone to have a preconceived notion. He plays it on the guitar and has me sing it. So he's taught me to do that. When I do sessions I do not bring a produced demo into the room. I sit down with a guitar and let everybody start right from that rock-bottom place.'

Ketchum: It was, but it was not my story. I had a great assistant who worked for me when I worked for Fitzgerald-Hartley, and her mama told me a story one night at a show in Texas. She talked about how she and her sisters, their dad and mom lived in an Oldsmobile outside the Pearl brewery in San Antonio. For the rest of her life every time she saw that Pearl sign she thought about that, and it was all love-it was amazing, that story, amazing to me. She remembers it as a highlight of her childhood. Her dad went in there every day for three weeks until they hired him, and they lived in that car outside the brewery. So I get it.

So is "Absolute Love" more directly related to your own experience?

Ketchum: Oh, by all means. Oh, yeah. I mean it was week to week at my house. Wild game. My dad, my brother and I went out, and if we had meat on the table it was because we shot it and skinned it. And we didn't miss much, honestly. It was remarkable. In lieu of that we caned chairs. My dad and I would go out to antique stores and find a good old Windsor chair, my old man would take it and refinish it on the dining room table and spend his time caning. My brother and I soaked cane; we'd get it back up, turn it and maybe make 10 or 15 dollars, you know. Go out and gather ground pine in the wintertime and make Christmas wreaths, Take a coat hangar, bend it into this stuff and go door-to-door sellin' 'em. There's nothing like having your own money in your pocket. We made do, as they say. As a unit. Everybody had a function. I never felt better than at those times.


Hal Ketchum loves his wife, Gina. 'I have big ideas all the time,' he says. 'She helps me keep it in perspective.'

I guess that's given you a strong sense of family as you've gone on in your adult life, not only in your original songs but also in your personal life.

Ketchum: Absolutely. It's the lesson learned. I live in an age where my kids are coming up inundated with product. They go to school and their friends are wearing a certain thing and it's hard for them to understand that I'm trying to teach them to earn their way, make their way, not have somebody else hand them stuff. That can turn into a big handicap. There's a self-entitlement that you can't really buy. "Absolute Love" opens with "sweet potatoes and corn mean." That's what we ate for periods of time. Or until the smelt were running and we'd go up and net fish and eat a bounty, invite everybody over. Golden times, man.

Father Time also brings us your first foray into the Civil War on the beautiful song "Sparrow," which is a perfect evocation of so many feelings relevant to our times now. Obviously you found a connection.

Ketchum: Yeah, war is war. You can take those sentiments and place them, unfortunately, in every period of history of mankind. There's some guy out there right now as we speak...I just wrote another one called "Lily's Birthday," about a guy in Iraq saying, "I pray that I'll be home by Lily's birthday." About his daughter. That sentiment runs really deep. I'm thinking too how this has really been a visitation for me. My parents passed away years ago and for some reason I've started revisiting the essence of that little house I grew up in. And all of the gifts, if you will, bitter and otherwise. My father had a remarkable book of Matthew Brady prints from the Civil War. It was probably 12 inches high, about 18 inches wide, a big, panoramic book. I remember being just big enough to open it. It was carnage, most of it, and he kept it put away because a lot of the pictures were not particularly pretty. That is the essence of that song, really traveling back in my mind to when I was three, four, five years old and looking at these Matthew Brady prints, these black and whites of all the sacrifices that were made. Again, that transcends every war. When someone in a position of power makes a decision and some farm boy goes out and freezes to death on the side of a hill.

You've written with some wonderful co-writers along the way, particularly with Al Anderson, who's a favorite of mine. But an Al Anderson song always sounds like an Al Anderson song. Why is that?

Ketchum: It just will and it always will, and if it don't he'll come and tell you about it. He blames me-and I didn't do it-but he blames me for him living in Santa Fe now. I rented a little house out there after I left Austin. My MS had kicked up and I was real sick, so I moved to Santa Fe, got a little adobe casita out there, backed up to the national park. Just kind of holing up and healing up. And Al calls me; he calls me "little buddy." "Little buddy, I'm comin' out there." So he came out and we sat out on the front porch of this little casita and we wrote six songs in two days. I keep reaching back in that bag. I think I've cut four of them over the years-and that was 10 years ago. He's a consummate guitar player. When he and I get together, he'll be over there figuring out those passing chords and I'll just be writing words down. It's a great collaboration; I love writing with Al.

Do you adhere to any particular discipline as a writer? Do you write every day?

Ketchum: I write every day, out of sheer necessity. I'm so tired today, man; I got three of them going yesterday. And when I played the Opry on Saturday night, I started something with Larry Gatlin right there at the Opry. It was a passing phrase and suddenly he had three lines, and while he was on stage I wrote three more and wrote a little melody to it. I love to write, just love it.

Before you ever wrote songs were you drawn to prose?

Ketchum: Very much. Absolutely.

Starting with "The Preacher and Me," there are so many story-songs in your catalogue.

Ketchum: That's the premise for me. I'd write 'em all as stories if I could. My dad read voraciously, everything. He would say something was "what Bertrand Russell called a 'train book.'" A train book is something you can pick up and read from the time you get on a train until you reach your destination. Quick reads. So that was his Louis L'Amour pile. The Louis L'Amour storyline is, there's a stoved up hero in the beginning who crawls into town and saves the daughter-I mean, it's just gonna happen. And the love interest is not going to be the first girl he's infatuated with but the second one. There's this beautiful pattern to those books. So I reach into that pile all the time. I guess when I was a little kid, I had some strange power of observation; I think all writers have that. If I'm riding in the car and come up with a melody, if I don't have anything to write it down on or whistle it into, it goes away. I can't retain information, so I have to act immediately. I'll call my answering machine. A line will come to mind, and if I don't write it down in the exact form that it rolled through, if I miss one word in the way that phrase turns it's not the same phrase, and it just deflates. So if it runs through my mind I write it down. Also, for a long time I thought you had to start and finish something immediately-really naïve, you know. That's not the case. I remember Robert Bly did a great interview and he said he had drawers full of ideas, and every two or three months he'd go back and revisit something. And it would be fresh to him. What I love about writing is that it seems to come from everywhere. My function here is to try to record it.

Another theme that's recurred in your work through the years and continues on this new album is the burden of dreams people carry with them-people who have dreamed big, have not necessarily succeeded, but the twist you bring to that situation is that you don't cast it as a tragedy for these people. The exception might be "Someplace Far Away," when the father sees a photo and it brings a fond memory of a dream he had but the mother sees it in far darker terms, sees something that's slipped away.

Ketchum: It's the function of the dream, really. That's the essence of what we really have-that's what you have at hand, the dream. I know from my own experience, any time I assume I know the outcome, I'm gravely mistaken. I have no right to the outcome. So the joy is in the dream itself, not in the execution of the dream.

But when the dream is imposed on somebody else—-

Ketchum: Oh, yeah! I know I've tried, I've done that to people for years around me. I used to move all the time. I'd have this great vision of how remarkable my life was going to be if I just picked up and moved 1200 miles. "If I just relocate, it'll be amazing. Within two days I will be king of the world." And I've fooled myself over and over and over again into that belief. I guess that's a matter of temperament. I think you gotta reach a point where you-and my wife has helped me a great deal with this-I have these great ideas all the time. Remarkable ideas. And I start calling all the people around me who either work for me or wish they didn't, or they have some place in my little scheme. And Gina finally will say, "You know, that's really a good idea, Hal. Why don't you sleep on it?" And invariably I'll wake up the next morning and I'm on to the next idea-the other one really wasn't such a good idea. If it was, then I'd pursue it. So she's helped me keep it all in perspective.

You mentioned Allen Reynolds, and you've worked with a number of other gifted producers-Stephen Bruton, Richard Bennett, Rodney Crowell. When you look back on the experience of working with these fellows, can you pinpoint what they brought to your music at the time?

Ketchum: Everyone brings something different to the table. Bottom line with Allen Reynolds is his theory that you can't really make magic but you can make yourself available to it, you can allow it to happen. And I've seen this with him time and time again. Just being in a studio with him, he never gets on the talkback, he doesn't confuse people, he doesn't power trip anybody. If you're having trouble with a song, let's say you have these great players in the room, and first and foremost everyone wants Allen to be happy. We're like little kids, and these are some of the most experienced session players in the world and the want to see Allen just beaming through the glass. I remember when we were trying to nail "Five O'clock World," which was Allan's song. And I didn't know he wrote it when I came in there. I'd heard it in Austin on an oldies station. I went into the session and I said, "Allen, I heard this song when I was coming up here, and it's called 'Five O'clock World,' and I'd like to try it." He says, "Well, pal"-he calls everybody "pal"-"I don't know how objective I can be about that because I wrote the son of a bitch." So I said, "Let's try it."
Everybody wants it to be the best thing ever cut, but it's just not happening, and it was like the more you chase it the further away it gets. And he just got on the talkback and said, "Hey, Milton"-to Milton Sledge, the drummer-"have you got that deep snare?" Milton says, "Yeah, it's out in the truck." Allen says, "Why don't you go get that." He set up that deep snare and suddenly the whole song just opened up.
So there's the gentleness of Allen Reynolds' approach. There's the fundamental approach of Rodney Crowell. Rodney never plays demos for the session guys. If you find a song you want to cut, he doesn't find a produced demo of that because he doesn't want anyone to have a preconceived notion. He plays it on the guitar and has me sing it. So he's taught me to do that. When I do sessions I do not bring a produced demo into the room. I sit down with a guitar and let everybody start right from that rock-bottom place. So that's Rodney's approach. All of these guys. There's a gentleness to producing these records, and that's what I think I've learned from every producer I've worked with. You can't chase a song; it's like chasing a rabbit out of a hole-it's not gonna happen. But you can allow it to present itself.

The only cover you've done on here is a tribute to your wife, who is from New Jersey, and it's a Tom Waits song, "Jersey Girl."

Ketchum: I've never met the man, but that's as good as it gets. Absolutely. I'm so inspired by writers and singers that find their own voice and do their own thing. Good comes from that. That's been a real lesson for me, and he's at the top of the list of artists I look at in that way.

He willed that to happen. He reached a point where he decided he was going to do the music he wanted to do, in a way he wanted to do it, and he would find some way to get it out. And he has.

Ketchum: We're right back to that place. This record, for me, I am more at ease than I've ever been in doing this for a living. I've been on Curb Records since 1989, and it's been a great deal, it's been a half-assed deal, it's been a lousy deal, it's been a pretty good deal, you name it. I had lunch with Dennis Hanna and I said, "I want to keep making records for you guys." He said, "Well, we want you to." And I said, "But you can't keep trying to reinstate me on country radio. I'm 55 years old, it was glorious and it sure was fun, but that's a young man's and young ladies game." And Dennis said, "So why don't you go and make the record you want? Make your 'Stardust' record." He worked for the label when Willie brought in Stardust and they didn't know what to do with it. 16 million records later they don't have to worry about it anymore. So I'm back in a position with the label I'm on where they said, "You're Hal. Go be Hal." And boy, what a great place to sit.

On this record you sound like you feel you're in the right place. It has that kind of ease about it.

Ketchum: I feel it. Absolutely. My thing is, too, I'm lucky in that I've toured for so long, people just can't wait to hear the new stuff. It's really cool.

Health-wise, how are you feeling?

Ketchum: Oh, good. I'm having one of my logy days. I'm moving slow but all in all I feel good.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024