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Hal Ketchum, renowned Texas singer-songwriter, dies at 67

Peter Blackstock
Hal Ketchum performed on "Austin City Limits" in 1992, 1994 and 1998.

Central Texas singer-songwriter Hal Ketchum, a member of Nashville’s prestigious Grand Ole Opry who launched his music career in the Austin area in the 1980s, died Monday evening at his home in Fischer. He was 67.

“With great sadness and grief we announce that Hal passed away peacefully last night at home due to complications of Dementia,” his wife Andrea Ketchum posted on Hal’s Facebook page Tuesday morning. Andrea had revealed details of Hal’s condition in April 2019, explaining that his health had deteriorated to the point that he was no longer able to play concerts.

Born April 9, 1953, in Greenwich, a small town in upstate New York near Albany, Ketchum relocated to Texas about 40 years ago and settled near New Braunfels’ historic Gruene Hall. He did some carpentry work for the venue and also began performing there.

Ketchum had played drums with an R&B band in New York as a teenager, but in Texas he started writing country-folk songs. By the mid-1980s he’d attracted the attention of Watermelon Records, an Austin label with ties to the iconic local store Waterloo Records.

Watermelon released “Threadbare Alibis” on cassette in 1988, with a CD release by German label Line Records. That drew attention from Nashville major label Curb, which issued Ketchum’s album “Past the Point of Rescue” in 1991. It became Ketchum’s first and only gold record, spawning four top-20 country singles.

Ketchum moved to Nashville in the 1990s and became a regular on the Opry, which inducted him as a member in 1994. Curb released eight more Ketchum albums across the next three decades. Ketchum appared on the television show “Austin City Limits” three times during the 1990s. He eventually moved back to Texas and settled in Fischer, a Hill Country hamlet near Wimberley.

In 1998, Ketchum was diagnosed with acute transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder. Later that year he became the original drummer for the Resentments, an all-star Austin ensemble organized by Stephen Bruton that began playing on Sunday nights at the Saxon Pub and continues with a different lineup to this day.

Ketchum’s calling card was his high tenor voice, a richly melodic instrument well-suited to both his own material and the songs of other writers that he recorded, which included Irishman Mick Hanly’s “Past the Point of Rescue” and pop svengali Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light.”

Ketchum’s final album, “I’m the Troubadour,” came out in 2014 on Austin-based Music Road Records. In recent years, Ketchum had performed locally at One World Theatre and Stateside at the Paramount in Austin. In 2014, he took part in Butch Hancock’s annual Townes Van Zandt birthday tribute at the Cactus Cafe, where Ketchum had played often as an up-and-coming artist.

Bay Area architect J. Hulett Jones was working at the Cactus while attending the University of Texas in the 1980s and saw many of Ketchum’s performances at the venue. “His songs were always spot on — honesty with just enough sugar to help the medicine go down,” Jones wrote in a social media post on Tuesday. “His stunning looks and smile didn’t hurt. He was one of the rare performers who drew a crowd of women to the Cactus.”

Among Ketchum’s last performances and interviews before his retirement were at Fischer Hall in 2018 for “The Dancehall Tapes: A Texas Music Preservation Project,” an in-progress documentary film series. In February 2020, more than a dozen fellow artists including Ray Wylie Hubbard, Randy Rogers, and Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis took part in a Ketchum tribute concert at Gruene Hall.

Hal Ketchum played drums in the original lineup of the Resentments, which in September 1998 also included Jon Dee Graham, from left, Keith Carper, David Holt and Stephen Bruton.