The word troubadour comes from Provence in southern France, where trobar means “find, invent, compose in verse.” In Hal Ketchum’s world, that verse runs through every aspect of his life. After his rise in the 90’s, dealing with the ups and downs of stardom, a scary bout with multiple sclerosis, Hal is back to doing what he was born to do – Invent and compose verses with a voice like none other. A true troubadour.
Hal grew up in Greenwich, New York. A friend of his fathers was selling his drums. Hal recalls his dad saying, “We’ve worked out a lay-a-way plan.” So, I mowed lawns and raked leaves and shoveled snow until I got it payed off. And so, I was the only drummer in town. I think this is why my parents drank so much….they’d be downstairs and I’d be up there banging away on those things and I learned how to play Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf and that kick part and that’s when I thought I was hot stuff.”
With friends, he started a band called Dean Modal and the Oriental Cha-Chas. “My dad took me down to the Clover Club. Richie Brown owned the place. Back in those days, you simply had to sign a permission slip. “I, Franklin Ketchum, will give my son permission to play at Richie’s Clover Club.” So that got it started. We would set up in sound-check and they would take a pool table and slide it up against the wall and put a piece of ¾” plywood on it and I would set my drums on it there. It was the greatest experience I ever had. You learn never to play a Rolling Stones song because a fight will break out every time.”
Hal’s parents helped him on his journey to find his musical style. “My dad stacked his records on one wall and my mom’s were on the other side. And it was all free range listening at any time. Day or night. My dad’s side was Buck Owens, Meryl Haggard, and George Jones. My mom’s side was crooners like Perry Como, Sinatra, Andy Williams. So I was free to kind of browse though all of this stuff. I would lay on my belly on the floor listening to Buck Owens and the Buckaroos and looking at that 12X12 album art. It was Buck Owens and Don Rich and that was my window to the world. That is when I decided that I was going to do this for a living.
But it was Hal’s move to Austin and hanging out at dance halls like Gruene Hall that motivated him. “Lyle Lovett was the first person. I started writing songs and I would go see Townes Van Zant, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely. I was like, “Wow! This is my ticket.” So, I started writing. I wrote nine songs in about two days and recorded a little record called Threadbare Alibis in 1986. I got a publishing deal out of it. I shopped those demos around and I got a deal with Curb Records. And Small Town Saturday Night went number one on August 16, 1991 and it was off to the races, man.”
Small Town Saturday Night became an anthem that has become his most requested song. But, Hal almost didn’t even record it. “The demo didn’t hook me. Pat Elger and Frank Devito wrote the song and but it was kind of a reggae-folkie kind of thing and I went “Ehh.” (Famous Nashville producer) Allen Reynolds took me aside. He took me down to the lobby at the studio and said, “Hal, you’ve just got to trust me on this one.” So I’m deeply indebted to Allen Reynolds for the rest of my life.”
“Then, we did that absurd video for it, which I had to convince Dick Whitehouse, who was a great cheerleader and a great friend. I said, “Dick, you’ve just got to trust me on this one.” He said, “Little people? Do you know how many people you are going to offend with that?” I said I was kind of doing them an honor. They were all of the munchkins from the Wizzard of Oz. They were a German circus troup. We back dropped it with a projector and got a reel of the film called, The Terror of Tinytown. And away we went. We had a miniature horse that looked like the white horse that Buck Lawson road. It was the meanest son-of-a-gun that ever lived. That last scene in the video where I’m dancing around, that horse is trying to bite me on the ass!”
Hal’s career took off from there and he had other hit songs such as Past the Point of Rescue, Hearts are Gonna Roll, Mama Knows the Highway, and Stay Forever. For Hal, known for his velvet voice, it’s the songwriting that drives him. “I was on my bus one night and I dreamt that I was on stage, singing this song – “Maybe I pray too much, maybe I’m wasting God’s time. Living without your touch, it’s driving out of my mind. If you could only see, how much you matter to me, maybe you would……” And that’s all I had. So I got with Benmont Tench from Tom Petty’s band. He’s a great piano player and a great guy. I told him what I had to that point and he just looked up at me and said, “Stay Forever.” And BANG – that song was finished in ten minutes.”
In June of 1998, Hal was playing a show in Florida when his right arm went completely numb. Upon returning to Austin, he was rushed to Seaton Hospital. “I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I was paralyzed from the neck down and I was blind and I couldn’t move. I was scared to death because my mom had MS and I had witnessed this first hand. It was very tough and a very frightening experience. Keith Carper would come in, my bass player. He was loud and you could hear him coming all the way down the hall. He’d come in and he’d stand there and be pepping my head and I’d be like, “If I could get up right now, I’d kick your ass.” He’s taunting me like, “Oh Hal! What a pitty. You know that Fender Stratocaster? You’re not going to be playing that anymore. Can I have that?” And I was like, “You son-of-a-bitch! If I could get up right now I would whip your ass.” He kind of brought me back.” Hal worked hard to make a full recovery, crediting a Tahitian flower extract called Noni juice, a zero-carb diet, and staying active with his other passion of being a master carpenter.
After six years, Hal went back to his songwriting roots and released I’m the Troubadour which has recently been nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Album. Thirty years after Hal recorded his first album, his distinctive voice sill shines. “Buck Owens sent me a letter that said, “Hal. This is from the ‘What-it’s-worth Department.’ When I hear you on the radio, I know it’s you. Being that fortunate myself, it’s like winning the lottery.” I agree with him. I don’t know. There is something identifiable about it. No voice lessons. No training. My mother was a great singer. She taught me two-part harmony. She’d be doing the dishes and I’d be sitting at the kitchen table and she’d teach me old hymns and stuff like that.”
Hal Ketchum will be playing at Temple’s Cultural Activities Center on Saturday, January 23rd. PURCHASE TICKETS BY CLICKING HERE