Hal Ketchum’s new album, I Saw the Light, opens with a smart, peppy rocker called “A Girl Like You.” It’s a fun, lighthearted song, but a few of the lines represent a darker and more serious time in Ketchum’s life. “I’ve done some dancing with the devil, held the dragon by the tail,” he sings at one point.
Ketchum wrote the lyrics to a catchy guitar riff provided by cowriter Al Anderson. As it turns out, the singer has been dancing with demons in recent years. Beset by personal problems and career pressures, the 45-year-old country star tried to find release in drugs and alcohol.
“I love opiates,” he says bluntly. “And I had started developing some very serious habits. I had turned to drugs and alcohol, and I don’t drink well. I’ve got too much Indian blood in me. It ain’t pretty. It ain’t pretty at all. I just stayed stupid. I got real dumb about it.”
As his drug use got worse, and as people around him began speaking up, he realized how bad the problem had become. “When it starts running you, it’s beyond where it should be,” he says. “That wasn’t working for me, so I modified all of it.”
Ketchum didn’t do it alone. Prompted at first by friends and associates, he tried to moderate his indulgences by himself. Eventually, however, he accepted professional help. “I spent Christmas in rehab,” he says, smiling at the irony of his statement. “I stayed at [The] Betty Ford [Clinic].”
The time in rehab put Ketchum back on solid ground. Now, five months later, he says he’s dealing successfully with his addictions. “It’s a new day, it really is,” he says, relaxing on a recent drizzly day in a VIP suite at a local hotel. Looking forward to the release of his new album, which comes out May 21, he talks about the four-year gap since his last record, 1994’s Every Little Word.
As he explains, even the new album’s title speaks to the many changes in his life. I Saw the Light is the title of Ketchum’s new hit single, a straightforward cover of Todd Rundgren’s 1972 pop hit. “It’s somewhat of an homage to Todd,” Ketchum says. His version maintains Rundgren’s original arrangement, adding country instrumentation and a fuller sound. But Ketchum didn’t name his album after the song just because it was the initial single; he also thought it aptly described his current mind-set.
Over the course of his career, Ketchum has made some strong records, but I Saw the Light is his best album yet. Part of the collection was recorded in early 1997 in Austin, Texas, with producer Stephen Bruton, who has also helmed recordings by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Alejandro Escovedo, among others. Ketchum actually recorded a complete album’s worth of material with Bruton; the songs marked a drastic change in direction for the singer. Bluesier and more rocking than Ketchum’s past efforts, the recordings were a ballsy move away from country. Ketchum made the move partly because country radio hadn’t embraced his last album with the same enthusiasm that it had 1993’s Sure Love and 1991’s Past the Point of Rescue.
Originally, the album was going to be titled Hal Yes and had been set to come out in August 1997. But, with Ketchum’s support, Curb Records pulled the release just two to three weeks before it was to be shipped to retailers. As Ketchum explains, the move was made after Curb executive Chuck Howard traveled to Austin to discuss the record with the singer. “Chuck sat across the table from me and said, ‘We really like this record, and we’d be happy to release it if you want to do that. But we don’t think we’re going to be able to sell a lot of ’em. We don’t think we’re gonna be able to get you any sort of promotional backing on it.”
In effect, Howard told Ketchum that the company wasn’t going to promote the album to radio stations or to retail buyers. In the world of major-label releases, that’s the same as a death sentence: If people don’t hear it on radio, or if they have problems finding it in record stores, then there’s no chance of it being successful.
Ketchum acknowledges that, already, an adversarial relationship had developed between himself and some Curb executives. But he listened to Howard, who suggested they salvage a few songs from Hal Yes and balance the album with some upbeat love songs. “It sounded like a prudent idea,” Ketchum says.
In truth, I Saw the Light may be a more conservative collection than Hal Yes, but it’s not a weaker one. Although the boldest cuts were removedincluding an extended psychedelic-country jam called “Blue Was Just a Color”the new songs rank among the best mainstream country tunes recorded in the last couple of years.
In addition to “A Girl Like You,” Ketchum added a touching, tender love song, “You’ll Never Hurt That Way Again,” in which a man pledges that his partner will never again face the abuse and disappointments of her previous relationship. The Rundgren cover was a new addition, as was “For Tonight,” a credible ballad written by Ketchum, Anderson, and Sharon Vaughn.
Several songs were resurrected from the Bruton sessions, including the swamp-rock workout “Long Way Down.” The song is about someone who has to face the consequences of his waning popularity, and Ketchum describes it as his “testimonial on the music business.” The beautifully melodic “Tell Me,” the Cajun-inflected “Love Me, Love Me Not,” and the bluesy “Unforgiven” also are holdovers from the unreleased album.
As for his experiences of the past six months, Ketchum says he’s determined to maintain control of his career, so that demands and pressures don’t escalate the way they did in the past. “Celebrity is an interesting thing,” he says. “I think everybody who signs a deal should be whisked into some kind of camp so they can learn to protect themselves. I clamored for fame and success my whole life, but then the door opens, and you’re standing in rooms with George Jones and Van Morrison, going, ‘Now what?’ Nobody tells you.”
Ketchum believes his perspective is better now. “It’s like any other job. After a while, you can get good at it, and you begin to know your limitations,” he says. “Whatever your profession is, there’s a way to do it with joy.”
That, basically, is Ketchum’s new plan: To lighten up, to keep his schedule from getting overwhelming, and to enjoy himself. “It’s a lot more fun now,” he says. “And I remember all the words.
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