Not long ago, Hal Ketchum was a carpenter and part-time songwriter who had migrated from upstate New York, where he grew up, to Austin, Tex., where contractors could offer regular work. Then in 1990 he moved to Nashville, landed a record contract, married the co-owner of a leading song-publishing company and released two albums. The second, Sure Love, is a hit, and this late bloomer (he’s 39) is a star. Welcome to the new country-music boom.
But Ketchum is not a hat-wearing arena cowboy, a new-traditionalist crooner or a twitchy, tight-jeans twang-rocker. His sound is actually a pleasant throwback to Nashville’s previous commercial high-water mark, the much maligned ’70s, when such singers as Mac Davis and Kenny Rogers crossed over to pop. It’s a simple, low-key affair where laid-back sentimentality rides in on relaxed Top 40 hooks, and an occasional mandolin, steel guitar or harmonica reminds you that you’re looking south. Sometimes the line between easygoing and forgettable blurs, but Sure Love’s best moments prove Ketchum is a vocal stylist who is here to stay. (Curb)