What Hal Ketchum Means To Me (A Remembrance)

Last week the Grand Ole Opry star passed away after a long battle with dementia. Here, our editor eulogizes him.

Back in the 1990s, as a young teenager, I was developing musical tastes and as my siblings gravitated to rock and grunge of the day, I turned to the stories and melodies found in country music. While Garth Brooks served as the introduction, it was artists like Hal Ketchum that made me a longtime fan. The stories that he told through his songs like “Small Town Saturday Night,” “I Miss My Mary” and “Stay Forever” had me and kept me a fan of his music.

Even as the radio hits faded following his fine recording of Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw The Light” in 1998, the past two decades brought much more music from Hal, including some of his best work like Awaiting Redemption. In fact, there’s a song I remember him singing in 1995 that would end up on this album. That song, “Turn Of The Wheel” is a great story song and one of his best, an lament about the realities of life in the old world. This album, originally to be called “Hal Yes,” was shelved for Ketchum’s 1998 album which featured “I Saw The Light.” There are versions of the same songs on both records and while Hal was in a long line of artists with grievances with his record label, that label did stick by him all the way through to 2008 when he released Father Time, his second to last record and it’s opener “Invisible” is but one the album’s honest, storyteller songs.

Blessed with a pristine voice — an important tool to my younger self — Hal Ketchum also was a songwriter on the level with the Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell and it’s amazing to think that his career really didn’t even start until he was in his 30s. He showed that country music was about the song more than the look or age of the artist (though that’s less true now than it was in the 1990s) and that a life lived was informed in the songs that he wrote and performed.

An engaging stage presence, his career was one of a troubadour so it’s fitting that his final album was titled I’m The Troubadour. It’s a record where he revisited some of his favorites from the past like “I Know Where Love Is” and “Stay Forever” (and making them different enough to stand out as different songs) along with “I Shall Remain” and the title track where the artist comes to terms with the fact that his life, particularly his later years where health battles with MS and Dementia took him away from the road and, last year, into retirement.

Hal Ketchum may not have been the biggest of stars but he was one of MY stars and a key reason for me to be where I am today, writing this from Nashville and trying to make even one song as great as the many songs he wrote. I will miss Hal but and forever grateful that I got to tell him what he meant to me and to see him perform live numerous times. 2020 has taken many of my heroes but without Hal Ketchum, I may very well not have ever known who John Prine or even Joe Diffie was. So thanks for the music Hal and thanks for making me a fan of real, honest music.


  • bob

    Loved your article since i'm a big Hal Ketchum fan. My most frequently played song in my i-Tunes library is "Daddy's Oldsmobile" which he wrote with David Mallett. #5 is "In Front of the Alamo" with backing vocal by Leann Rimes (solely written by Gary Burr). #7 is "I Miss My Mary", a solo writing effort by HK, my favorite of his solos. Others include "She's Still in Dallas" and "I Know Where Love Lives".

    • Matt Bjorke

      Yes, his catalog is deep with many great songs, most he wrote, some he didn't. He was also a brilliant live performer; Charming, engaging and downright fun to see. I'm glad we'll always have his music at the very least.