Hal Ketchum’s Father Time is the ninth album in a distinguished musical career that includes such indelible Top Ten hits as “Small Town Saturday Night”, “Past the Point of Rescue”, “Hearts are Gonna Roll” and “Stay Forever”. It may well be his masterpiece. On the fourteen-song tour de force, the man hailed as “the most exquisite voice in country music” (USA Today) and “one hell of a storyteller” (the9513.com) who “couldn’t write a bad song if he tried” (All MusicGuide) delivers an exquisite album that plays from first track to last like the work of a lifetime. It’s a musically and lyrically opulent and vibrant opus that is both immediate and timeless.
Father Time was created in two magical days of recording direct to two tracks with a crew of some of Nashville’s most virtuosic players and backup singers. It was both arranged and mixed as the music was made, with no overdubs. Like the gems from Sun Studio or Bradley’s Barn that still sound as fresh and compelling as the day they were cut, Ketchum recorded Father Time without a net, relying on the strength of his finest collection of songs yet and an almost psychic unity between singer and musicians, capturing lightning in a bottle often on the very first or second take.
The songs on Father Time include some of Ketchum’s most recent compositions - many of them road-tested before audiences at his live shows - as well as the first song he ever wrote (“The Preacher and Me”) and even one number (“Surrounded by Love”) written on a lunch break on the first day of recording, along with some of his favorite collaborations with fellow songwriters that had yet to be recorded. As the title implies, the songs focus on life’s essential matters, with characters that resonate with the believability of real people living (and dying). In “Yesterday’s Gone”, “Surrounded by Love” and “The Day He Called Your Name” family members face mortality with an enriching love and sweetness, and there are cinematic tales about everyday people (“Invisible” and “Ordinary Day”) as well as the vividly unique characters that make life a rich pageant (“Millionaire’s Wife”, “Million Dollar Baby” and “Continental Farewell”).
From the Central Texas climes where Ketchum began his career as an artist (“Down Along the Guadalupe”) to the battlefields of the Civil War (“Sparrow”) to the fertile realms of Ketchum’s imagination (“Strangest Dreams”), Father Time transports listeners to those places that only the most artful and compelling songwriting can evoke. And its one cover, Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl”, stands head and shoulders with the versions by both its composer and the esteemed artist who also covered it, Bruce Springsteen. And all of the album’s stories and emotions unfold within one of the most musically inviting and satisfying recordings in recent memory.
Father Time is the album that Hal Ketchum’s talents have promised ever since he burst onto the country music scene in 1991, hitting Number One with his very first single, “Small Town Saturday Night”. His almost instant arrival as a distinctive artistic presence reflected a lifetime already immersed in music.
Reared in the village of Greenwich in the gorgeously verdant countryside of upstate New York, Ketchum hails from a family where singing and playing music was part of the daily (and nightly) diet for generations. He was exposed to country music (his father was a fan) as well as the symphonic classics and, one year, even the Newport Jazz Festival at the nearby Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
“It was just a natural thing to be intrigued with music,” explains Ketchum, who started playing drums at age nine and by fourteen was gigging at local bars and taverns. Anyone looking for a reason why “Small Town Saturday Night” immediately struck a chord with music lovers - and the roots of Ketchum’s innate knack for connecting with an audience in live performance - can find the origins in his years of making music for regular people seeking to transcend the everyday on weekend nights.
“It was a great lesson in sociology because the bars would move the pool table over in the corner and put a three-quarter-inch piece of plywood on top, and that would be my drum riser. At fifteen years old I’d get to sit up in the corner of these joints and just watch the evening progress. Friday night everybody would get paid from one of the local pulp mills, and they would wander in and be very generous during the first set. Then by halfway through the second set they’re dancing with one of the girls. And by the third set they’re fighting. I learned never to stop playing during a fight. That was an important part of my education.” So it’s no wonder that the scene depicted in his very first hit “is tattooed onto my soul.”
Ketchum eventually traded one of his two drum kits for a five-string banjo and then traded another banjo for a Martin acoustic guitar, forming a duo with his singing and guitar-playing brother to also entertain at local nightspots. A move to Texas landed him in a house on the edge of New Braunfels in the very heart of the Lone Star State, just a stone’s throw from historic Gruene Hall, an old dancehall that is the virtual mother church of the Texas music scene where talents like George Strait, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and many others began their rise to fame.
“The house was a fixer-upper, and I had just dried it in and put windows in, and I was moving in one Saturday night and heard music playing from up on the hill,” Ketchum recalls. “I had come in from the San Antonio side and didn’t even know Gruene Hall existed. I got in my truck and rolled the windows down and just followed this sound. I crossed the Guadalupe River and came up the hill and to the right, and there was Gruene Hall on a Saturday night in all its glory, with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel playing for 600 drunken stomps and their dates. I was like, what is this? It was like a movie.”
He began spending every Sunday afternoon drinking beer and playing horseshoes with the locals at the dancehall, and “listening to Townes Van Zandt or Lyle Lovett staring at his boots playing to nine people or Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore with this guy named Spider on the musical saw,” remembers Ketchum. “It was my songwriter school.” With the encouragement of Lovett and Gilmore, he honed his craft as a writer, singer and performer and eventually landed the coveted Sunday afternoon slot at Gruene Hall. He then put together a band to propel his story songs with danceable rhythms and rose to become an opener and later headliner at Gruene and other Central Texas venues.
An album he recorded on his own dime and released on a small Austin Indie label, Threadbare Alibis, caught the ear of Curb Records, which signed Ketchum and brought him to Nashville to record his major label debut, Past the Point of Rescue. “The label dropped ‘Small Town . . .’ in early 1991 as the first single. And it went to Number One on August 16th of that year. And suddenly I was a genuine hillbilly singer,” he says with a chuckle. His success prompted Curb to shift its base of operations from Los Angeles to Nashville, and CEO and owner Mike Curb refers to Hal as the label’s “cornerstone artist.”
Since then Ketchum has distinguished himself as a hitmaker with fifteen Top Ten singles and five million albums sold as well as a true singing and songwriting artist with a capital ‘A’ and one of the most engaging performers on the American live music circuit, also winning a devoted following in Great Britain - a natural outgrowth of his Celtic family and musical roots. He has forged his own singular presence in popular music thanks to such qualities as his vibrant talent and creativity, artistic integrity and natural soulfulness.
He has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1994 and often hosts the “Opry Live” show on GAC. In addition to being a master woodworker - which is how he made his living before music - Ketchum is also an accomplished painter who sold out his first show at the distinguished Penna Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He lives outside of Nashville with his wife Gina and their three daughters Rosie, Ruby (who sings with him on the Opry) and Sophia. And Ketchum is likely the only artist in popular music with a tomahawk target field behind the house where he unwinds with a friendly game of “throwing hawks” that reflects the Native American strains in his family background.
The recording of Father Time as a live, direct-to-tape album originated from a conversation he had with some fellow musicians about how artists and players have lost some of the feeling of creative community in this high-tech era of recording apart from one another in separate rooms and booths. “By the end of that conversation, I said, okay, I’m going to cut live to two-track. I went home that afternoon and got a yellow pad and put together a wish list of players. And almost everyone I called was available for the two days I had blocked out.”
Ketchum and five other stringed instrument players “circled the wagons” as he calls it, and set up in the main studio room together, with two drummer/percussionists in an isolation booth and background singers in another. He would run through a song and then they would cut it, with the arrangements and the mix coming literally on the fly as the music unfolded. The first three tracks on Father Time are all first takes, and by the end of day one Ketchum had nine completed tracks. The entire album is sequenced in the order in which it was recorded.
“When I went into this project my mentality was that this is either going to work or not,” he explains. “As we listened back to the first track, I got this glorious feeling. I was like, wow, I don’t know what this is but I really like it.”
“I felt like it was time to make a record like the first one I made where I wrote everything on the record,” says Ketchum. “I had the good fortune of having some hit records and developing a strong following as a live performer. But it was important that at some point over all my years of making records that people got to see the essence of my songwriting and my voice as a singer and writer.”
“It is a coming of age,” he says of Father Time. “This is what I do. I do have a desire to be remembered as an artist, and whether somebody discovers this record today or 25 or 30 years from now, that’s fine by me. But when they do get there, I want them to listen to this album and go, yeah, I understand. The motivation here is to leave a little trail all my own.”
Ultimately, Ketchum is “thrilled” by what he has achieved on Father Time. And listeners will also feel that thrill as they listen, as well as being impressed and touched and having their lives enhanced by the songs and stories within and the music that accompanies them with a stunning beauty, power and emotional depth. Because with Father Time Hal Ketchum has made an album for the ages.