IN THE EARLY ’90s, it seemed that Hal Ketchum had it all. He had translated his ruggedly handsome appearance, rich voice, and knack for hook-filled country pop into seven top 10 hits in the first half of the decade.
His career took a parallel dip. In 1998, record producers tried to rework Ketchum into a country lite / adult contemporary artist. They rejected the material that he offered for release, and sent him back to the drawing board. The result was his most insipid album ever in I Saw The Light.
Ketchum’s persistence and his willingness to try a commercial gamble were, however, rewarded by his record label. They freed him up to release the album of his choice in 1999. The result, Awaiting Redemption, is his rawest and most vital effort since his 1989 debut Threadbare Alibis.
Ketchum always could write well, but that skill had been honed for years towards hit production. This time around, it is a triumphant blend of folk, blues, and rock in the country framework. The hooks are still there, and the vocals are still perfectly rich, but everything is genuine rather than affected.
Bare autobiography is the lifeblood of Awaiting Redemption. For instance, the grooving minor chord two-step, The Unforgiven, sees Ketchum look back at his days in a haze.
“I get to running sideways like a snake across the sun,” he admits. It begs the questions, “Will I live to see the morning sun? Will I make my way among the unforgiven?” Similarly, the shuffle, Long Way Down, has as its bottom line the warning, “Look out son, it’s a long way down.”
Awareness of mortality, understandably, is part of Ketchum’s catharsis. Dear Anna Lee is unabashedly about the fear of dying, while the tone is one of defiance in Slow Down Sunset with its words, My time isn’t over yet.
God becomes one of the characters in the drama in a song like the pop country ballad, Too Many Memories. The wise narrator notes:
God moved in that moment and the angels all cried / And they gave you a memory that you’ll have till you die / Now the lesson you learn, and don’t you forget / What makes you grow old is replacing hope with regret.
The title track makes Ketchum’s theology one certainly in synch with the 12-step programs of his training crystal clear. Within a rocking country shuffle, he belts out, “I believe you carry round a power deep inside” in as raw a delivery as this silky smooth singer has ever offered.
His bottom line, his ethic, his faith is in each stanza’s climax line. Awaiting redemption, praying for grace, he cries.
Aren’t we all?
Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.