“I had pretty much thrown in the towel. I wasn’t interested in putting out another big country album. I’ve done that. I’ve been there, man,” says Grand Ole Opry member Hal Ketchum, describing his recent five-year respite from the music industry.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis fifteen years ago, the symptoms were starting to catch up with Ketchum, who is now 61 years old. “I went through some really serious bouts of paralysis, blindness and the fear that goes with all of that. I was in kind of a dark place,” he says. “I didn’t write, didn’t perform. I was just laying low, living in a cabin out in Wimberley, TX.”
After focusing on his health for several years, his strength began to return, but Ketchum soon realized he would never really be himself without returning to his lifelong art form. “I came to the realization that I had gotten to this deep level of depression, and I finally said to myself, ‘I can still do this. I can still write.'”
Ketchum began to write again, jotting down song ideas in the notebook he carries with him at all times. “The key for me was getting up every morning and having something real to do. Some days, my hands don’t work as well as they should, I’ll get a little wobbly on occasion, but I just keep going.”
Soon, he had a handful of songs and demos, which he sent out to friends in the music industry. “I wasn’t really planning on doing another album,” says Ketchum, who has produced fifteen Top 10 singles and sold more than five million albums in his career. “The whole Nashville scene is extremely competitive. You’re as good as your last record. People are always showing you spreadsheets on how much money you owe for videos and tour support and everything else. I think there’s a certain level of resentment that comes with that.”
But when Jimmy LaFave and Kelcy Warren of the small Austin, TX label Music Road Records heard his songs, they knew they had to convince Ketchum to write another album. “We had a great talk, and they said ‘Hal, you’ve made these great country records, but we really want to challenge you to reach outside of your comfort zone and write from your heart,” Ketchum recalls. “So that was my goal.”
The result is Hal Ketchum’s first full-length studio release in 6 years, ‘I’m The Troubadour,’ out October 7 on Music Road Records. In contrast to the pure country hits he’s famous for, ‘I’m The Troubadour’ finds Ketchum letting his songwriting expand into folk, blues, rock and soul.
According to Ketchum, he’s had this musical renaissance in him all along. “I like to say that I’ve been successfully misunderstood for 30 years. I mean, I was a cabinet maker from Gruene, TX. I got a record deal and I had a number one record out of the box, and suddenly I was a ‘country’ singer,” he says. “The genre served me very well, and I’m really grateful for the opportunities that the country music world brought to me. But creatively, this record was a really beautiful departure for me. It’s really opened me up again”
Ketchum still loves country music, and has no problem playing the hits for his fans. “It’s an honor,” he says. But the freedom of working with Music Road Records, without genre restrictions and commercial pressure, has given him new life. “I think it’s going to be refreshing for people who haven’t heard me in a while to know that the old man’s still swingin’.”
“My mother put a great poem on my wall when I was a little kid called ‘Keep a-Goin’. It went – Ain’t no use to sit and whine, ’cause the fish ain’t on your line, bait your hook and keep a-tryin’, keep a-goin’.
“So that’s become my motto,” Ketchum says. “Just keep going.”