Songs aren’t always finite things to Hal Ketchum. A major presence on country radio during the 1990s through hits like “Small Town Saturday Night,” “Hearts Are Gonna Roll” and “Mama Knows the Highway,” he says his compositions don’t always come from real-world inspirations, or even the real world, for that matter.
“Sometimes I dream these things,” said Ketchum, who performs Thursday at Willie’s Locally Known. “They literally just come in a dream form, but it’s been really, really fantastic to explore the options. At the same time, there is no such thing as a song that’s finished. They can take a while to write, but the more you play them, the more you’ve just got to let them go.”
Today, he operates outside of country music convention as an indie artist whose music gains as much admiration from Americana audiences as the Nashville mainstream. Similarly, his itinerary isn’t of full band concerts. The bulk of his touring schedule, including his Lexington performance, leans to stripped-down duo presentations with longtime guitarist Kenny Grimes
“I used to travel with a full band, and it just wasn’t very cost effective. So it’s really nice to do this with Kenny. He’s my best friend. We’ve been doing this for 35 years. Working with him has just been fantastic.”
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There is no such thing as a song that’s finished. They can take a while to write, but the more you play them, the more you’ve just got to let them go.
Ketchum, 63, does have a new album to showcase, “I’m the Troubadour.” But the big news isn’t so much that the record is his first full studio work since 2008 or his first release after a 17-year alliance with Curb Records. No, the headline here is that there is new music from him at all.
After the release of his 2008 album, “Father Time,” Ketchum was diagnosed with acute transverse myelitis, a spinal cord inflammation that brought paralysis and a near end to any kind of career.
“I was paralyzed from the neck down,” he said. “I was blind. So I moved to New Mexico, to Santa Fe. I rented a little adobe casita and just had to really work everything out. I had no feeling in my arms, so I had to learn to play guitar again. It was pretty tough for a while.
“But I’m like the Black Knight,” he said, alluding to the character in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” who loses both legs and arms in a battle but refuses to concede defeat. “It was only a flesh wound.”
Today, Ketchum again lives in the Hill Country of Texas. A native of Greenwich, N.Y., he moved to the Austin region in the early ’80s before his escalating career took him to Nashville the following decade.
“I grew up in upstate New York, so I’m a Yankee by birth but a Texan by choice,” Ketchum said. “Today, I live in paradise. This place we bought — five acres on a hill in Comal County. … I mean, the sunrises and the sunsets here are all just absolutely magical. I feel really happy.”
Musical lifetimes spent in Texas and Tennessee might suggest Ketchum’s prime musical inspirations hailed from the world of country music. He is quick to point out otherwise.
“I have three musical heroes: Van Morrison, Van Morrison and Van Morrison. He’s truly the most creative man I’ve ever met.
“I got to do a show with him. We were playing Dublin one time in a pub, and it was absolutely incredible. When I was sound-checking, I was playing ‘I Miss My Mary’ (an original composition from Ketchum’s 1991 album “Past the Point of Rescue”) and he just stood there and listened. He’s a very engaging guy. He said, ‘Did you write that song?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I did.’ We got along so well. It was fascinating. He’s absolutely my hero.”
But I still feel very creative and very much alive with what I’m doing.
Although he is proud of his hitmaking career, Ketchum said he feels little kinship to the country music emanating from Nashville today.
“I think it’s pretty much a wasteland. It’s just a bunch of tailwagging. I sound like a crotchety old man, I know, but I’m not impressed with it at all.
“But I still feel very creative and very much alive with what I’m doing. I just celebrated 25 years of being a member of the Grand Ole Opry, so I’m just very blessed to be doing what I do for a living. It’s all good, man.”