Hal Ketchum Trades the Factory for the Back Porch


Hal Ketchum‘s diverse I’m the Troubadour balances soulful new originals (the title track) with older country hits elegantly reworked (“I Know Where Love Lives”). CMT Edge spoke with the popular Texas-based songwriter about his first new collection in more than five years.

“I just got up one morning and songs started coming to me again,” says Ketchum, whose career had been sidelined by personal and physical problems, including severe symptoms of multiple sclerosis. “I guess the well filled back up. So, I just started writing things down and I quickly had 15 songs. Music Road Records called and said, ‘We’d love to make a record with you.’ Away we went.”

CMT Edge: Did anything in particular get you back in the groove?

Ketchum: Yeah, I think it was just the missing it. I missed it so much. The first thing I wrote was called “New Mexican Rain” and I liked it a lot. I really enjoyed the poetry of it and the story and the closure. It really encouraged me. I probably over the course of two weeks wrote the whole record. It just occurred. As my friend Harlan Howard used to say, “Just stay out of your own way.” I did. You just put your back into it and see how it goes.

Do you always write that fast?

I do write quickly. I think I mull these things over subconsciously and then they just pop out. It’s not really a discipline. It’s more of a joy for me.

Where do you write best?

Home. I live in Fischer, Texas, in a very quiet part of the world. My wife and I just finished restoration on an old grist mill built in 1888 right here in Fischer, a beautifully small community, the most serene place I’ve ever lived. The population in the downtown historic area including us is eight people.

Tell the story behind writing the new album’s title track.

Well, my onstage introduction for years was, “Raised by wolves and bound for glory … ladies and gentlemen, the 71st member of the Grand Ole Opry, Hal Ketchum.” I used that for many, many years and when I got out here in this great old grist mill, I wrote four or five things specifically on the back porch. That one just came to me one day. I thought, well, I’ve used that in various forms over the years, maybe there’s a song in there. That one was a lot of fun to write.

You were asked to join the Opry two decades ago this year.

I couldn’t believe it. I was absolutely dumbfounded. I’d gone out and played some guest spots over the years and (Opry announcer) Hal Durham called me at home where I was living in Nashville at the time and said, “We’d like you to become a member.” I thought, “This is unbelievable.” It’s every musician’s dream to be a part of that phenomenal group. It’s truly a family there. I go up and play every couple months, and it’s like old home week every time I play there. Standing on that stage is a magic thing.

Do you ever miss living in Nashville?

No. Not in the least. I think one of the reasons I got down here is that I really almost reached the point of obsession there. I’d go to bed thinking about this stuff and I’d wake up thinking about it and it almost put me in a factory mentality where I was comparing my work to others. That’s not a healthy thing for an artist to do.

It’s much better for me here. I’m basically an artist-in-residence at this beautiful cantina we have right behind me, a music venue. I get to sit on my back porch and listen to MilkDrive and Warren Hood and all these great acts that come through. I’m kind of the grand old man here. I’m enjoying being here very, very much.

Did that freedom play into the new record’s musical diversity?

Well, it’s something I’ve been on for quite a while. I made a record in Nashville, the last record I made for Curb Records, called Father Time, kind of a Triple A, Americana, singer-songwriter record, a folk record, if you will. So, the direction was already pretty well cut. I was encouraged by (Music Road Records’) Kelcy Warren and Jimmy LaFave both to stretch it a little. Ironically, I’m getting back to doing what I’ve been doing for years. I mean, I was 38 when I got my first record deal.

You hit straight out of the gate with “Small Town Saturday Night.”

Yeah, the first single, “Small Town Saturday Night,” was a No. 1 record. So, suddenly, I went from being a 38-year-old cabinet maker in Gruene, Texas, to being a hillbilly singer. In a way, I feel I’ve been successfully misunderstood for years.

Tell the story behind writing another hit, “I Know Where Love Lives.”’

Gosh, I wrote that when I was living just outside Gruene Hall in 1987 or ’88. My first wife, Barbara, and I bought this great little house. I was working in construction at the time, and this guy had given me this old building that’d been used as a nail shed. I drove it up I-35 and backed it up behind my old stone barn on the property and made a studio out of it. I put a porch on it, of course, because I’m a serial porch builder. One afternoon I was sitting on the porch and playing guitar and this melody and wrote that song in probably four or five minutes. It just fell out.

Explain how you approached rerecording that song for the new album.

Kelcy thought it’d be wise and I think he was right. He said, “Let’s take some of the new ones you’ve written but also let’s reintroduce people to these things that have been yours for years and that you really own.” We threw some slight spin. On “I Know Where Love Lives,” I had Tameca Jones sing the second verse. It’s a little more up-tempo than the original version. It was really fun for me to address these things.

How many takes did you do for the hits?

I always do things in one take. Everything that I sing on this record is one take because (producer-songwriter) Allen Reynolds taught me years ago: “Perfection is interesting, but the human element is really what makes an impact on people.” I think he’s right. I had not heard the new piano solo on “Stay Forever” and when I did while I was singing, I cried. It just changed the song so much and it floored me.