Nashville in the Rearview
“You can be too country for country radio,” declares Hal Ketchum, and while that may not be a revelation outside Nashville city limits, it’s a pretty bold statement from a guy who scored seven top-ten country hits in the first half of this decade. “A year ago I was afraid of stepping on toes with a comment like that because it was my bread and butter,” he says, “but I’m not looking to change the world anymore.” Ketchum, who moved to Chicago in the fall, isn’t getting played on the radio anymore either, at least not like he used to: his label, Curb, culled only two singles from his 1998 album, I Saw the Light, and only the title track, a faithful cover of the Todd Rundgren pop hit with a fiddle graft, even got on the charts, where it stalled at number 36.
That was just one downer on a roller coaster Ketchum’s been riding for the last few years. In January 1998 he emerged from the Betty Ford Center free from the booze and heroin habits he’d developed since his first Nashville album, Past the Point of Rescue, scored big in 1991. The next month he married his third wife, hair and makeup stylist Gina Giglio, but that spring he was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare spinal-cord disorder that caused his arms to become temporarily paralyzed. “They’re still not, and may never be, 100 percent,” he says, “but I’m really fortunate that I didn’t lose my left hand to it entirely. It was really challenging to have to relearn to tie my shoes again. When I played my first C chord I was elated.”
After all that, Ketchum found himself in the mood for a change of scenery. “I’ve always loved Chicago,” he says. “My first show here was with George Jones in Grant Park. We were on the road last fall and we were tossing ideas around. I said, ‘How about Chicago?’ and my wife said, ‘Sure, let’s go.'” Now he’s gearing up to tour behind a new album, Awaiting Redemption, which was actually recorded before I Saw the Light and before he hit rehab. Originally titled “Hal Yes”–“I was fucked-up and I thought that title was hilarious,” says Ketchum–the blues-flavored album is darker and more raw, both lyrically and musically, than anything he’s done since his debut album, Threadbare Alibis, recorded for Watermelon in 1989.
In fact Awaiting Redemption, produced in Nashville by Austin mainstay Stephen Bruton, was so gritty and emotional that just weeks before its original scheduled release–some advance copies had already been sent out to critics–Ketchum’s former Curb A & R rep, producer Chuck Howard, told him the label didn’t think it could get radio to support it. He persuaded Ketchum to recut two of the songs and record six new ones that were more radio friendly. That collection, plus three of the Bruton tracks, became I Saw the Light.
The Bruton recordings stand in high contrast to the Howard cuts, a few of which blur the line between country and adult contemporary. But Ketchum doesn’t regret his decision. “I Saw the Light was an attempt to play ball in the marketplace, and I think it succeeded in its own right,” he says. “Being an instinctive person and a pretty good businessman, my relationship with the label was enhanced by the experience.”
This seems a diplomatic way to say that his cooperation earned him the right to do it his way this time. Awaiting Redemption, which comes out in May, will be released exactly as recorded and sequenced by Bruton, including the three songs that made it onto I Saw the Light. Ketchum is playing material from the album, as well as songs he’s written since moving to Chicago, during a four-day acoustic stint at Schubas that ends on Sunday. These are Ketchum’s first local shows since 1995; he’s accompanied by guitarist Rob Gjersoe, a former Milwaukeean who’s played with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Robbie Fulks. A portion of the proceeds benefits Gilda’s Club, a nonprofit center that offers emotional support to cancer patients.
Edward Wilkerson’s popular octet 8 Bold Souls will finally make a follow-up to their 1994 release, Antfarm, in July, but instead of releasing it on Arabesque–which put out Antfarm and its predecessor, Sideshow–or another jazz label, the group will give it to Thrill Jockey, the indie rock label that made its entrance into the jazz market just last year with the Chicago Underground Duo’s 12û of Freedom. Wilkerson was introduced to Thrill Jockey owner Bettina Richards by HotHouse proprietor Marguerite Horberg and was impressed by the diversity of music on the label. “They distribute their releases outside the normal jazz channels, which usually ignore alternative stores, and they seem hungry and off-the-beaten-path in the way they do things,” he says. The album is due out early next year.
Some three years in the making, the latest issue of the Detroit-based humor zine Motorbooty finally hits the stands this week. Masterminded by cartoonist and former Big Chief guitarist Mark Dancey, Motorbooty has done a better job than most skewering hypocrisy in underground music culture, and number nine is as fierce as any before it. Features include “Unoriginal Gangstas: A Collector’s Guide to White Rap Players,” a series of phony trading cards complete with flip-side factoids (“A self-described ‘redneck,’ Kid Rock funded his early demo tapes by picking apples!”), and an advertisement for a fake self-help book called When Good Guys Join Bad Bands (“My friend Tom isn’t in the Crummies. He would never do that to me”). Motorbooty staffers Barry Henssler (former front man for Necros and Big Chief) and Rob Michaels (who also contributes to Spin) live in Chicago, and they’re throwing a release party with DJs Chamberweed and Natty on Saturday night at the Liar’s Club, 1665 W. Fullerton; 773-665-1110.
The German Allstars–Old Friends, a group that includes legendary trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, trumpeter Manfred Schoof, saxophonist Klaus Doldinger, pianist Wolfgang Dauner, bassist Eberhard Weber, and drummer Wolfgang Haffner, make one of three stops on a very brief U.S. tour Monday night at the Empty Bottle. While some of the musicians (in particular Mangelsdorff, who greatly expanded the possibilities for his instrument by simulating chords during the 70s) have formidable reputations as groundbreakers, the Allstars’ recent demo CD sounds disappointingly mainstream. But if for no other reason than rarity–none of the players have performed here in nearly a decade–this is an event with a capital E.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Hal Ketchum photo by Nathan Mandell.