Hal Ketchum, a singer/songwriter who flourished on the charts in the 1990s, has died from complications of dementia at age 67. Ketchum was diagnosed with dementia in 2019 and retired from performing due to the disease. His biggest hits included his 1991 debut single, “Small Town Saturday Night,” “Past the Point of Rescue,” and “Mama Knows the Highway.” He was also a member of the Grand Ole Opry, inducted in 1994.
Ketchum was the rare country star who was not a native of the South or Midwest. He was born April 9, 1953, in Greenwich, New York, and began his performing career as a drummer for an R&B trio. After moving to Austin, Texas, he began to immerse himself in singing and songwriting, and released an album of his original songs, Threadbare Alibis, in 1988 on a small record label.
That prompted a move to Nashville, where Ketchum sought commercial country stardom. In 1991, Ketchum released his debut album for Curb Records, Past the Point of Rescue, which yielded four hit singles. His 1991 debut single, “Small Town Saturday Night,” written by Pat Alger and Hank DeVito, evoked sharply detailed images of life in a small community. It shot up to No. 2 and launched Ketchum to a period of consistent chart success. The title track to Past the Point of Rescue also peaked at No. 2, while his remake of the pop hit “Five O’Clock World” landed inside the Top 20.
Ketchum belonged to an era of country music known for artists who possessed an intellectual flair, along with Rodney Crowell, Kathy Mattea, Suzy Bogguss, and others. They wrote and chose material that was often deep and highly literate. Ketchum himself spoke with a certain eloquence and dry humor when being interviewed. Some of his most romantic and powerful compositions included his hit singles “Sure Love” and “Hearts Are Gonna Roll,” both of which reached the Top 5. Ketchum’s string of hits led to an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry, and he was inducted as an Opry member in 1994. “His poetic piece about becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry was so touching,” Opry stalwart Jeannie Seely remembered upon Ketchum’s passing.
During the latter part of the 1990s, Ketchum saw an inconsistent pattern with his chart releases. “Stay Forever” became his last career Top 10 hit in 1995, though he received considerable acclaim for his cover of Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light” in 1998. Ketchum continued to release albums and singles, which met with only mild success. But he had a variety of outside interests, including painting and carpentry. His paintings were exhibited at the Pena Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2002.
Health problems began to arise in 1998 when Ketchum was diagnosed with acute transverse myelitis, a rare neurological condition. The disease affected the use of the left side of his body, and he had to relearn basic motor skills. In April of 2019, Ketchum’s wife Andrea announced that he had been suffering from early onset dementia, and could no longer perform. He died from complications of the disease on November 23rd.