It's 73 degrees in Nashville, with the humidity approaching 93 percent, and multi-platinum country singer-songwriter Hal Ketchum is at home in front of a canvas. Today, he's painting a horse.
"It started as a portrait of a young foal with his head turned and looking straight at you, but I framed it in the canvas as if he's stepping through the frame," said Ketchum, who will perform in Juneau Sept. 2. "He's already breaking out of the painting, and I just have to figure out what sort of accentuary colors to use."
So goes an average day in Music City for Ketchum, whose wife, Gina, just gave birth to the couple's third daughter, Sophia Grace.
Ketchum has had 15 Top 10 singles and sold more than 4 million albums. He learned how to write while living in Austin, Texas, in the mid-1980s, playing alongside Jimmie Dale Gilmour, Lyle Lovett and Joe Ely. He was a staple of country radio in the early 1990s after "Small Town Saturday Night" reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts.
These days he's painting, working on a children's book with his wife, raising his five kids and preparing for a winter national tour with Leon Russell and Double Trouble. He's also finding time to work on his 10th album.
"It's kind of about where I'm at right now, happily experienced and successfully misunderstood," Ketchum said. "It's a great place for an artist to be. I'm happy but not satisfied. I've been sort of labeled a country singer and had a lot of success on radio, but I'm really more of a singer-songwriter."
Ketchum plays at Marlintini's at 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 2. Tickets are $35 in advance, $40 at the door, and available at Marlintini's or DocWaters, in the Hangar building. The show is 21 and over.
This is not Ketchum's first trip to Alaska. He's a good friend of Hobo Jim Varsos, the mysterious rebel songwriter known in some circles as "Alaska's Official State Balladeer," who's toured the back reaches of the state for more than 25 years.
"Hobo Jim asked me to come fish, and I started doing that many years ago," Ketchum said. "I used to go up fishing in Kenai every June."
"Alaska's another world for me," he said. "Some of my favorite memories are sitting to the side of the Eagle River in the Mat-Su Valley, where you can literally see the outside of the valley and reach out and touch it. The light is so different. And when it's on, it's amazing.
Ketchum's recent shows have included two songs, "Travelin' Teardrop Blues" and "Forever Mine," from his upcoming album. The latter is the first song written by his wife, Gina.
"She was on the phone with a friend of hers, and I heard her say a line, 'He reminds me of things I never knew I wanted,'" Ketchum said. "I thought that was a good line, and when she got off the phone I said, 'Baby, you just said something great, why don't you write about it?' We've been collaborating on a children's book, so we had that writing groove. We got with it, and the producer liked it."
That producer, Allan Reynolds, worked on Ketchum's first three albums, "Past the Point of Rescue," "Sure Love" and "Every Little Word." "Past" had two singles, "Small Town Saturday Night" and the title track, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts.
"We hadn't worked together in about 10 years, but I was ready to go back in the studio and his name came into my mind," Ketchum said. "He was more than willing to do it, and it's been a joy to get back together and collaborate."
"I think we honor those old records because of the success they brought us," he said. "I had huge radio play during that period. But we've also both evolved. I know I've gained a lot of confidence. He called me a sure-footed singer, which is a great compliment. I've played so much live, and I've sung so much, I guess you can't shake experience."
Earlier in the year, Ketchum was touring with Jesse Valenzuela of the Gin Blossoms. For this tour, he's back with bass player Keith Carper and drummer Christopher Nieto - two guys he's known for more than 20 years.
"They both stayed home for a couple years to raise families, and now they're both back with me again," Ketchum said. "It's been a homecoming. They're a scary rhythm section."
Ketchum has also been reunited with Kenny Grimes, a lead guitar player he met when he first moved to Austin in 1981, at the age of 17.
"I hadn't seen him or talked to him, but he came to mind four months ago," Ketchum said. "It's been like falling off a log; our musical conservation was just interrupted for a brief period of time. He plays from the heart every night, and his technical options are so incredible. You see him over there thinking, and it's just fun to watch."
"It's a very improvisational band," he said. "We have no set list. We have a wealth of material from playing together, and we just play. Somebody in the crowd will holler out a song from 10 years ago, and we'll take a swing at it. It's sort of a community meeting, and we're providing the musical entertainment."
In November, the band will begin "Caravan of Dreams," a tour with Leon Russell and Double Trouble. Each show will be set up like a revue, with each band playing a set, then merging for a collective finale.
"Leon and I have been talking about it for six months," Ketchum said. "He lives here in Nashville, and we have a number of mutual friends. I'm a great admirer of Leon as a musician and a person, and anytime you get to spend with your friends on the road is good time."
In the meantime, Ketchum is content to paint. He dabbles mostly in Southwestern motifs. He has paintings all over his house, and a few more hanging at a friend's gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
"I lived in Santa Fe for a couple of years and took a lot of photographs, so I have a wealth of obscure information and I kind of find some things that are related to that," Ketchum said. "I take themes and turn them into abstract thought. They're not real common landscapes. Maybe I'll take an old mission church, and I'll do that in vibrant colors."
Ketchum has also been illustrating for a children's book about angels, written by his wife.
"It's about everybody having an angel, and you know, mine's tried to retire several times," Ketchum said. "The illustrations are like stick figures. I'm really trying to draw like a 5-year-old kid, which has been a beautiful challenge."
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