[11 September 2008]
When Hal Ketchum sings about homelessness during “Invisible”, which opens his new Father Time CD, he could just as easily be describing lagging reactions to his own work. “Busy people walk on by / Never look me in the eye”. Ketchum is the male equivalent to Mary Chapin Carpenter. Like Carpenter, Ketchum often gets lumped in with the country music mainstream, even though he’s far brainier than your typical good old boy. Similarly, Carpenter is whip smart, and just happened to attain her first successes with country audiences. Ketchum is a member of the Grand Ole Opry, mainly because he’s an excellent songwriter, and he certainly deserves to be there. But his songs are more often astute observations, rather than typical beer-soaked memories. And that intelligence factor is reinforced once again with Father Time.
Ketchum follows “Invisible” with “Yesterday’s Gone”, which tells the sad story of a once strong and proud father who is now dwindling away, health-wise, in a home. This circumstance is described as “the end of his journey”. But instead of bluntly telling this tale, Ketchum begins the first verse by describing a cardigan sweater, one that isn’t worn anymore. Like a lyrical detective, Ketchum lets the evidence tell this story. He surveys the room, and in so doing, paints this elderly man’s fading portrait.
The beauty of great songwriting is often found in the details. But sometimes simplicity is best, and that’s certainly the case with “Surrounded by Love”. This sweet gospel song, which is nicely colored with warm fiddle, speaks about the value of finding love within poverty. Whether it’s actually biographical or not, it’s certainly believable when Ketchum describes an upbringing; one without some off the finer things in life. But while these folks lacked money, and all that money could buy, they were surrounded by love, like safe sheep with their shepherd.
Another sign of a good songwriter is the ability to inhabit others’ lives, and this is something Ketchum exemplifies on “Millionaire’s Wife”. With its lyric, Ketchum tells the sad story—from prison, no less—about how his character killed a rich woman’s husband. He contrasts her lifestyle, one with all the luxuries a wealthy life provides, and his, “a ticket straight to hell” in prison. The soulful sound of “Millionaire’s Wife” reminds me of John Hiatt’s great “Memphis in the Meantime”. Hiatt’s song talks about the way Nashville’s sometimes overbearing twang-i-ness can sometimes drive a guy crazy—especially if said guy also loves soul, R&B, and blues sounds. Fortunately, Nashville and Memphis are located in the same state, which means that whenever one is starting to OD on steel guitar, Memphis can be a convenient escape. Likewise, “Millionaire’s Wife” shows off Ketchum’s soulful side. He’s too eclectic to be typecast as just another hat act.
One last way you can spot a fine songwriter is if he or she appreciates other songwriters. Little kids like to say, ‘It takes one to know one,’ and with skilled songwriters, this phrase holds true. The second-to-last song on this disc is “Jersey Girl”, a great old Tom Waits work. Bruce Springsteen, actually a Jersey guy, has been known to perform this one live. But in Ketchum’s hands, the song takes on a modified Western swing feel. It’s not a hot-stepping dance number, mind you, but with its walking bass, pedal steel, and fiddle, it’s not the usual sort of thing you hear on the Jersey shore.
These are just a few reasons why Hal Ketchum is one of our better songwriters. But don’t take my word for it. Buy Father Time and find out for yourself.