Hal Ketchum: Ketchum Is Here To Make Music

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Curb Record artist/writer Hal Ketchum certainly fits the profile of a successful country artist. He put in years paying his dues and honing his skills in the eclectic Austin, Texas, music scene to earn his way to Music City. Since 1991, songs like “Small Town Saturday Night,” “Past the Point of Rescue,” “Mama Knows the Highway,” “Stay Forever” and “Tonight We Just Might Fall in Love Again,” along with some imminently watchable videos, placed him firmly in the listening public’s awareness. He was produced by Jim Rooney and Allen Reynolds, well-known in their own right.

Curb Record artist/writer Hal Ketchum certainly fits the profile of a successful country artist. He put in years paying his dues and honing his skills in the eclectic Austin, Texas, music scene to earn his way to Music City. Since 1991, songs like “Small Town Saturday Night,” “Past the Point of Rescue,” “Mama Knows the Highway,” “Stay Forever” and “Tonight We Just Might Fall in Love Again,” along with some imminently watchable videos, placed him firmly in the listening public’s awareness. He was produced by Jim Rooney and Allen Reynolds, well-known in their own right.

On the other hand, the 44-year-old New York native has already displayed a knack for rugged individualism. He was already into his thirties when his recording career took off, distinctive in the current youth-oriented market. He cites musical influences as diverse as Walter Hyatt, Van Morrison and Buck Owens. Most importantly, he is stubbornly and vocally adamant about staying true to his creative vision. In itself, that’s not necessarily unheard of by any means, but something of a risk when your success is dependent on continued public acceptance, and you admittedly have an ego that enjoys performing.

“I’ve chosen musicianship over celebrity, and that’s where the line is drawn. I’m not here to make a lot of noise, I’m here to make music. It’s really a music-first, song-first sort of approach that doesn’t require being shot out of a cannon or pyrotechnics, it’s more subtle,” he offers, explaining why he chose to stop touring, stop talking to the press and take a creative sabbatical.

When it comes to songs and songwriting, it doesn’t take long to realize Ketchum practices what he preaches. His approach can be described as organic and instinctual.

“It’s a real simple process in a way, but because it’s a mental process you can cloud it with too much evaluation, intellectualize it. I thoroughly believe a writer has no place evaluating his own work. There’s no way to do that without seeing it through the lens of ego. If you can keep ego out of the process, you can be true to yourself as a writer or artist.”

Ketchum is a self-professed people watcher, often drawing ideas from simple observation. He admits he’s not above a little harmless eavesdropping if he overhears something that catches his attention.

“I like to sit by the stream of humanity. It’s very inspirational. The things you overhear in passing conversation, for example…I can literally misunderstand one side of a phone conversation in an airport, maybe only three or four words, and suddenly get a great phrase with one twist of a word. I’ve met some interesting characters along the way. We’re all studying to become characters if we survive long enough on this planet.”

Discussing the process that turns these bits and pieces into songs, Ketchum says his method is based on not getting too structured, but letting the idea evolve.

“I’m not really hook driven; I’m more inclined to work from singular lines and phrases that are somehow interlinked. Sometimes I’ll get the melody and lyric simultaneously, sometimes not. Songwriting is a cumulative process. It’s possible to have an idea and simply nurture it for a year. A lot of songs are instant jolts in conversation and suddenly an idea will re-occur in a different way. A little closer to where it wants to land.

“I think the key to writing is perspective, but also letting the song happen. A critical part of the process is not editing too prematurely, before the idea is complete. A song will tell you when it’s done. I’ve seen good work overwritten. The analogy I use is that in painting you’ve got to know when to put down the brush.”

The artist has always recorded a fair amount of his own material, but he’s open to outside songs being pitched as well. He explains that what he looks for is the same either way.

“It’s always hard to be objective about my own material. I tend to think that if I felt passionate enough about a topic to write a song, it must be worth saying. I like to try out new material in front of an audience and get that response. The ones that work are what I take to a project. I really rely on my producer and my wife to see these things objectively. The guidance of a producer becomes critical in song selection for me.

“Initially a song has to move me as a listener. I have to believe in a song whole-heartedly; I have to be convinced I can sing it appropriately and do it justice. I have to feel excited about performing it on stage. There are a lot of factors involved.

“I never take a tape from anybody’s hands. It all goes through my publishers. They are my filter from the wave of “ear-candy” out there. I really feel we’ve created another bubblegum era. There’s always 90% you can shake your tail to and don’t remember, and maybe 10% that will still knock you out 20 years from now.”

Ketchum says that while demo quality is important, the arrangement doesn’t particularly influence his reaction to a new song.

“I listen to the production, but it’s not an important consideration unless there’s an absolutely signature guitar riff involved. There are songs that are great musical pieces, as well as the combination of lyric and melody, I pretty much know if I’m going to take to a song or not from the first line quite often.”

Discussing the time-out he called on himself, the father-of-four says he felt a need to return the basics: his home, his family and his writing.

He’s very excited about his current project, the first in two years, tentatively entitled Long Way Down, to be released his summer. Produced by Steven Bruton, many tracks were recorded in Austin, some live. Artists Delbert McClinton and The Fabulous Thunderbirds also took part. Ketchum expresses satisfaction with what his time-off accomplished.

“I feel very strongly the outcome is what I hoped for. You can reach a fork in the road. Here you are with this career. All is well; you’ve got the hit records, the big thing rolling and you reach this point. If you want to stomp around all day visiting and glad-handing, you’re not going to look inside. You’re preoccupied with you ego, your public persona. You’re certainly not going to write songs, because writing is internal; it knows the inner self. Writing a song doesn’t require a lot of talking. It doesn’t create the same glamour as that trophy or getting on a magazine cover. I came to Nashville to write songs.”

Asked how he would advise an aspiring writer or artist, Ketchum’s answer reflects the same values he follows himself.

“You need to get an outlet to get your songs heard. Go through reliable channels like BMI, SESAC, and ASCAP. Walking around with a stack of demos isn’t real effective; I tried that too. Get your songs out in front of people. The experience of performing your own work is inspiring; it’s scary a lot, too. If you’re willing to bare your soul to that degree, you’ll find out if you have the goods or not.

“Songwriting is one of the most intimate, personal acts a person can attempt—writing down your thoughts and being willing to communicate them. My goal as a writer, a performer, as a human being, is to just try to accomplish fine, good things from day to day.”


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