The one thing that sets the songwriting of this month's featured artist, Hal Ketchum, apart from some of his Nashville counterparts is depth and detail. Not content to express his art solely in his music, Ketchum is also known for his painting, sculpting and carpentry work, including a previous career as a cabinet maker. In this final article of our featured artist coverage we'll examine some of those spun yarns and the art behind a Hal Ketchum song.
A percentage of the songs that grace the nine albums he's released are in and of themselves intricate tales of love, life, and loss. The lyric seem to be done in the style of an old folk-classic but they are set to something more contemporary, even though they are very pure and unadulterated in sound. What isn't a spun-yarn is often a just as heartfelt show of love – a romantic ballad. In between the two are the up-tempo and fun tracks that round out an album. What they all have in common is the obvious care that went into crafting them.
On his newest release, One More Midnight, he abandons every rule of marketable music with "Poor Lila's Ghost." Twenty-six verses take the listener on a nearly fifteen minute journey of a man running from the law, his haunting memories, and himself. Though it has the sound and texture of a classic folk-blues song, there really isn't anything typical about the poetic structure and the extended format.
While the list of classic-rock extended anthems may be extensive, this is really the first time I've seen this sort of animal in this genre, but the result is breathtaking. It's hard to classify this track as song, though it is a beautifully eerie one. Soft almost-spoken lyrics begin to a bare-bones and acoustic accompaniment before everything opens up to something fuller and richer. It's an art to draw a listener in and keep them on a chair's edge wondering what's around the corner and what piece of the puzzle and story the next verse will bring, and that's exactly the experience you're in for when you listen to "Poor Lila's Ghost."
In that same folk vein is "Daddy's Oldsmobile" from the Sure Love album.
When this songs starts, with its light and airy acoustic guitar accompaniment, you think you're in for a countrified version of a classic car song. "My daddy bought this car before I was born/sure liked the radio, I loved the horn" but it quickly turns to something completely different when you learn the car has become a home for the down-and-out family.
Even though lyrically the tone changes drastically, the music stays light and warm, and in the end the message of 'love conquers all' is expressed by that warm sound. The journey is a lot shorter than "Poor Lila's Ghost" and is more traditional in form, but the experience is as enjoyable.
"That's What I Get For Losing You" from Every Little Word may not be the same deep narrative, but it does show another side to Hal Ketchum that he expresses in song – his romantic side. This one, however, has that fun upbeat tempo and is really a beautiful blend of two styles. The song is about someone cursing themselves for letting a woman slip through his fingers but it's rhythmic and fun, with a percussion focus, and has some very interesting instrumentation.
In true romantic ballad form is "Every Little Word" from the album of the same name. In this song he has no problem wearing his heart on the sleeve and letting the listener in on the tender side. The song is an outpouring declaration that "It's more than just I love you/It's every little word" he hangs on.
But, my favorite Hal Ketchum song? It changes as frequently as the weather and my mood, but I consistently find myself going back to the romantic, yet heart-whenching 'realization of love lost' song of "You Loving Me." It takes a real art, to display longing and need in way that is still soft and sweet, and Ketchum achieves it. It's a blend of a deep love and the realization the other person has let go, and the lyrics and their accompaniment are so fine tuned and blended to convey that emotion.
As hard as it maybe to put my finger on a favorite song, it really isn't that hard to identify what it is about his catalogue that appeals to me. Aside from how accomplished he is with the guitar accompaniments, it is the thread of humanity, be it love, loss, or just a slice of someone's life that he has sculpted into song.
Below I've included the video to "Hang in There Superman" from you-tube so you can get view a bit of his past. Hal Ketchum's current album, One More Midnight is now available in the U.K. and is slated for U.S. release on Curb records in March or April.