WASHINGTON — It happens every time you hear a Hal Ketchum song on the radio. The DJ comes on afterward, almost thinking out loud, 'Whatever happened to ole' Hal?'
For those paid to spin CDs for a living and the throng of Ketchum fans, there's good news.
"I Saw the Light," his fourth release, marks the return of an artist who continues to push the edges of country music at a time when it's hard to put most music in any sort of box. It just doesn't fit.
Ketchum was long ago inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., but his take on country music has fewer hayseeds and more crafting of words and feelings of the shared experiences of love and life. His crossover appeal is much wider.
After a few years respite from the road, Ketchum is back and eager to be performing. "I feel refreshed and ready to enjoy this again," explains Ketchum via phone from his Austin, Texas, home. "I've come to appreciate this a lot more. Getting up in front of people and singing is a dream job."
As with past recordings, "Light" is a collection that mixes Ketchum's positive energy with sensitively crafted lyrics.
The beautiful ballad "Tell Me," is a heartfelt plea for reassurance that the underpinnings of love felt in a relationship are really there. "Love Me, Love Me Not" has the same rollicking style as his breakthrough hit "Small Town Saturday Night." The smoky, western-feeling "The Unforgiven" is a story of journey and passage.
Formerly a carpenter in upstate New York, Ketchum had a childhood passion of reading and spent many years composing poetry for his late mother. All this has given him the master's touch. His mother's strong influence reminds him of how important it is to listen.
As he returns to the spotlight, Ketchum seems eager to take that message to heart, and reach out to the crowd to hear them. Ketchum now frequently engages the audience with a question-and-answer session.
"People are really interested in the process of how the songs are written. They ask really intelligent questions," he says.
"As a listener, I would love to hear why and when someone wrote a song and what their influences were."
For those discovering Ketchum for the first time, there are several previous releases: "Past the Point of Rescue," "Sure Love," and "Every Little Word," and a best- hits collection.
Ketchum will be crisscrossing the country throughout the year for those hoping to catch up with an old favorite, or hear him for the first time.
* For tour dates and more information, check out www.countrystorm.com/ketchum
James N. Thurman's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org