First of all, he possesses, as noted by USA Today, “the most effervescent voice in country music” – but of course you already knew that.
More to the point, when we joined Hal at the Curb Records office in Nashville last February, his new album had yet to be titled. In fact, it had yet to be finished. He hadn’t even made final decisions on which songs to record.
“Actually,” he said, “we might cut a whole other ten and start all over.”
We laugh – it is absurd to talk about an album that’s still in its early stages. Still, Ketchum makes it clear that none of this worries him. He’s taking his time on this one. And he knows that when it is finished, it’ll be the album he was meant to make at this stage of his life.
How does he know this? Simple: The seeds have been planted and he can feel them grow.
The most obvious of these is its first single, “Just This Side of Heaven,” which debuted in January at number 58 on Billboard. Everything about this song is right for Ketchum: Its message is on target. The melody and the musicians lock together in an inspired dance. Most important, it moves him to sing at the peak of his power – and, this being Hal Ketchum, that’s a lot of peak, so to speak.
What about that seed metaphor? It’s simple, but it’s different – revolutionary, even. After all, Ketchum has already conquered country music through playing by its own rules:
* a quick ticket to fame with his first single, “Small Town Saturday Night,” which hit number two on Billboard, and gold debut album, Past the Point of Rescue, in 1991; * a subsequent string of hits, including but not limited to “I Know Where Love Lives,” “Hearts Are Gonna Roll,” “Stay Forever,” “Five O’Clock World,” “Sure Love,” and “I Miss My Mary”, adding up to fifteen hits in the top ten – and five of those in the top five; * more than four million total CD sales; * membership in the Grand Ole Opry since 1994; * covers of his own songs by artists as varied as Neil Diamond and Trisha Yearwood …
But he’s also done things his way, from performing at a concert of his music set to dance by the Nashville Ballet to continuing his lifelong interest in woodworking to exhibiting original artworks at a prestigious gallery in New Mexico.
And when it suits him to plant a different kind of seed, he’ll do that – just as he was doing even as we spoke about his upcoming album.
“In the past, the rule was: Cut a record and then pick the single,” he explains. “This time it’s: Pick the single and then build a record around it. You can build a record around a singular voice – and I’m speaking of ‘voice’ on two levels, not just the audible but also the philosophical.”
Hal Ketchum is a builder. He was, on this cold February morning in Nashville, in the midst of building a new porch onto his house … “building” a new painting in the studio he keeps next to his music room at home … and building the spirit and substance of his album. What makes this interesting is that at this moment he had no idea where his endeavors would take them – but every confidence that each destination would make his efforts worthwhile.
Of course, that leaves us at an interesting point too, assigned to complete a new bio of this multifaceted entertainer, who had come to country music as a young upstate New Yorker, began playing drums at age fifteen, and wound writing songs, playing dance hall gigs, and working full-time as a cabinetmaker in San Marcos before moving on to Nashville and claiming his place among the stars.
That’s all old news, of course. The new news is that Ketchum is back with his first album in two years. And be sure that whatever ends up on it is the product of a master builder, a conscientious planter of seeds, and an artistic range that’s rare in country or any other kind of music.
“And the first great single of 2006 belongs to (drum roll, please) Hal Ketchum. All-around good-guy Hal has always made great music, but ‘Just This Side Of Heaven’ is ultra heavenly. It’s always a sheer delight to hear this man. Every note he sings is full of warmth and heart. But here, Hal outdoes himself. As its title implies, this is an absolutely inspiring piece of work. By the time he swings into the first chorus of this tempo tune, you’ll be shouting ‘Hal-Lelujah’ along with him.”---Robert K. Oermann, Music Row, January 6, 2006
“Hal Ketchum is back with a shimmering new effort that boasts a radio-friendly melody and singalong chorus. ‘Just This Side of Heaven (Hal-Lelujah)’ is a well-written love song riddled with romantic imagery. The best part of this delicious treat is Ketchum's vocal. He has long had one of the most unique voices in the industry. He is a stylist in the best sense of the word, an artist able to infuse any lyric with a sense of drama and urgency. This should remind programmers why he was blessed with a string of hits early on in his career. Here's hoping his brethren at country radio show him a little more love.” —Deborah Evans Price, BillBoard, February 18, 2006