The country singer-songwriter, just diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, keeps touring and recording
Friday, June 13, 2003
By Tom Roland
Special to the Register
The Orange County Register
When Hal Ketchum played the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano recently, the audience reacted boisterously to sound problems.
His amped-up band, the Gypsy Playboys, was loud enough that it masked some of his vocals, and a few crowd members grew agitated and raucous in delivering their displeasure to Ketchum. He handled it with grace, heading to the side of the stage to speak calmly with the sound man, then moved along in his set.
The sound improved, though it never got completely fixed. Still, Ketchum's enduring soulfulness and thoughtful disposition were able to ring through the clutter.
Ketchum, who returns Thursday to the Crazy Horse Saloon, was fighting much more than sound that night, though he never tipped his hand to the concert-goers. Before the show, he admitted to a reporter for the first time that he had been diagnosed only weeks earlier with multiple sclerosis, an incurable neurological disease that affects its victims in varying degrees of severity.
Ketchum's symptoms mirrored common MS maladies. His left hand had become unreliable, so he had stopped playing guitar publicly. His weight had ballooned since the era in which one magazine tabbed him the most attractive man in Nashville. He had encountered episodes of blurred vision. He'd also gone through an emotional period of mourning for his health.
Yet he continued to perform that night as if nothing affected him.
"I'm fortunate to have an illness that's really manageable in the time that we're living," he reasons, "so I'm seeing it that way."
Ketchum is using both Western and Eastern medicine to combat the disease's neurological effects. Under a doctor's direction, he's administered his own injections, but he's also supplemented traditional care with herbal remedies from China.
"There are things that I can do," he says.
"And," he adds, "I can get up and seize the day."
To be certain, MS may have slowed Ketchum, but it has not stopped him. He continues to paint in his spare time, and recently sold three of his pieces following a gallery showing in Santa Fe, N.M. He's putting together a one-day mini-music festival in the Austin area for August, and he's just released a new album, "The King of Love," that demonstrates he has not lost his edge.
After signing with Curb Records through its Los Angeles office, Ketchum established himself in 1991 with the rollicking "Small Town Saturday Night." He pieced together a total of nine Top 20 country hits, including the tuneful "Sure Love," a re-make of The Vogues' "Five O'Clock World" and a piercing ballad, "Stay Forever," that would mark his last foray into the upper realms of the chart, in 1995.
Eight years later, "The King of Love" is more likely to be heard on the eclectic KCRW than on country mainstay KZLA. His audience may be smaller, but the options are larger for his musical textures, which are gritty and loose, particularly when compared to the stylized commercial productions that typically emanate from Nashville studios.
On the album, Ketchum ably delivers themes of faith, commitment and parenthood with a surety and serenity that underscore a maturing view of his business. The opening song, "Everytime I Look in Your Eyes," is a gorgeous piece that appears in a new Sylvester Stallone DVD, "Avenging Angelo," although Ketchum admits he never bothered to investigate much about the movie - meaning he has no idea if his quality effort is in a quality vehicle.
"Let's face it," he explains, "there are a lot more important things than what any of us do. It's who we love, and who we take care of, and who we go home to that counts, in my world anyway."
Ultimately, Ketchum seems a bit relieved to have reached a point where he has built a fan base, but is no longer dependent on current hits to keep it in place.
"I guess longevity has replaced drive, in a way," he says. "(I don't need) to create the next big thing. We live in such an instantly gratified society that it must be heartbreaking to try and constantly one-up yourself."
Ketchum is way past that. Now, he's focused on resting enough to keep a disease in check, and on using his art to make a statement, rather than make a mint.
The size of the audience does matter ("There's nothin' worse than playin' for tens of people," he admits), but even more important is the connection. That still exists, as does the humanity that allowed him a few months ago to address those nagging sound problems with admirable grace.
As long as the audience - and his body - allow it, he'll keep trying to make that connection.
"There's nothing worse than seeing that exit sign, and the silhouette
of someone leaving during a song," he laughs. "That's what we try to avoid
at all costs - dignity at all costs. As long as there's dignity in this,
I will continue."
Copyright © 2003, The Orange County Register