“The first night in our new house,” Mr. Ketchum told the Dallas Morning News in 1992, “I heard music that sounded like Bob Wills,” a key figure in a jazz-inflected style of country music called Western swing. “I thought maybe the house was haunted until I went outside and heard it coming from a big building across the river.”
He drove over and discovered Gruene Hall (pronounced “green”), with the band Asleep at the Wheel keeping the spirit of Western swing alive.
“It was a mythical kind of place,” Mr. Ketchum told The Washington Post in 1994. “Some people sat in the corner playing dominoes, and other people got up onstage and played their songs, and there was no more pretension about one than the other.”
Mr. Ketchum became a fixture at Gruene Hall, both as a performer and as a carpenter.
“I worked on the hall a lot,” he told the Morning News in 2001. “I built the fence around it, fixed the dance floor, leveled the pool tables — whatever needed to be done.”
He also began appearing at Sunday showcases for aspiring songwriters. Mentored by key figures in the Austin music scene, including Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett and Jerry Jeff Walker, Mr. Ketchum quickly developed as a songwriter and a performer.
He recorded an album, “Threadbare Alibis,” that was originally released only on a German label. In 1989, he moved to Nashville, where he recorded demo versions of his songs, which he described as “about real things in people’s lives, real relationships, alcohol, fighting, love — your basic encyclopedia of country music.”
He sold some songs to more established performers, including Trisha Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes, but Mr. Ketchum’s demo recordings were so polished that he was signed to a contract by Curb Records.
He had an “aching, verge-of-a-teardrop” tenor voice, in the words of Los Angeles Times writer Mike Boehm, and the handsome looks of a future star. His 1991 album, “Past the Point of Rescue,” contained four Top 20 country hits, including “Small Town Saturday Night,” which reached No. 2 on the Billboard country chart.
The song, written by Pat Alger and Hank DeVito, seemed to capture the pride and desperation of growing up in small towns across America:
We’re going 90 miles an hour down a dead-end road
What’s the hurry, son . . . where you gonna go?
We’re gonna howl at the moon, shoot out the light
It’s a small town Saturday night
The song stayed on the charts for 28 weeks and became a staple of country music radio. Another song from the album, the title track “Past the Point of Rescue,” by Irish songwriter Mick Hanly, also peaked at No. 2, and Mr. Ketchum soon had a gold album, with more than 500,000 copies sold.
A 1992 follow-up, “Sure Love,” had three more Top 10 hits, including “Hearts Are Gonna Roll,” a song written by Mr. Ketchum and Ronnie Scaife about a teenage girl with “drop-dead looks and a mind for trouble,” which also reached No. 2 on the country chart.
By then, Mr. Ketchum was touring the country in a 45-foot bus and even had a flirtation with Hollywood, with bit parts in movies.
He was named a member of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1994, the same year he released the album “Every Little Word.” A ballad from the album, “Stay Forever,” which Mr. Ketchum wrote with Benmont Tench, the keyboard player with Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, reached No. 8 on the country chart.
“In their best moments,” journalist Bob Allen wrote in Country Music magazine in 1994, Mr. Ketchum’s “performances hook you and hold you and simply won’t let you go. Palpable intimations of fear, helplessness, desire, compulsion and confusion all swirl just beneath the music’s seemingly placid surface.”
In 1997, after years of drug and alcohol abuse, Mr. Ketchum sought treatment at the Betty Ford Center in California. The next year, he was diagnosed with acute transverse myelitis, a spinal cord disorder that led to temporary paralysis. He had to relearn how to walk and play the guitar.
He resumed his career but could not fully recapture his previous success. In 2003, he had another setback when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the same disease that led to his mother’s early death.
“She had to perceive her own mortality,” Mr. Ketchum told Country Music magazine in 1994. “All the things I perceive and write and sing about and the things I’m drawn to are relative to the philosophy I got from her in a very formative period of my life.”
Hal Michael Ketchum was born April 9, 1953, in Greenwich, N.Y., a town in the Adirondack Mountains near the Vermont border. His father was a Linotype operator for a newspaper. Both of his parents were music lovers, and during his teens, young Hal played banjo in bluegrass bands and drums in rock bands.
After high school, Mr. Ketchum spent time in Florida, working as a carpenter, before moving to Texas. He applied the advice of a cabinet maker he worked for — “measure twice, cut once” — to his songwriting.
“The first people I wanted to impress when I started writing songs in earnest, when I was in Texas,” he said in 1994, “were musicians who would accompany me on these songs. There was a musical standard first.”
Mr. Ketchum’s live appearances often had a sharper, rock-and-roll-flavored edge than the sometimes syrupy arrangements on his Nashville-produced recordings.
He moved back to the Texas Hill Country in 2008 and released his final album, “I’m the Troubadour,” in 2014. Mr. Ketchum gave his final performances in 2018, finishing up where he started: at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels.
Last year, his wife announced that he had a form of dementia and was retiring.
Mr. Ketchum’s marriages to Barbara Schell, Terrell Tye and Gina Pacconi ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of five years, the former Andrea Elston; two children from his first marriage; three daughters from his third marriage; and several grandchildren.
Mr. Ketchum said his musical influences ranged from Van Morrison to Duke Ellington to the singer-songwriters he met in Texas.
“The blood of a traditionalist runs through my veins,” he told the Morning News in 1994. “I grew up in an environment where music is music if it comes from the soul.”
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