“This is a song that I wrote all by myself,” said folk-country singer-songwriter Hal Ketchum during the second of two sold-out shows at Caffè Lena on Sunday. He was about to play “Millionaire’s Wife,” a vivid, toe-tapping tune from his 2008 album “Father Time.” The song paints a colorful picture of an affair gone very wrong, and he sang it a bit slower and more pensively than it appears on the album.
Ketchum often works in collaboration with other writers, and he prefaced many of the evening’s song selections with a bit of humorous or touching backstory about his relationship to a song’s writer or co-writer.
Before “Hearts Are Gonna Roll,” one of his catchiest tunes, Ketchum joked that the song’s success allowed his co-writer, Tennessee guitarist Ronny Scaife, to put a new transmission in his stock car. “Five O’Clock World,” with its Byrds-ish peal and lilting yodel section, was written by his “dear friend” Allen Reynolds, he explained. “In Front of the Alamo” by Gary Burr was written when the two songwriters had a “song-off” after randomly choosing words from the dictionary; Burr drew the weighty topic while Ketchum drew “sphincter,” he said, not quite seriously.
The bearded Ketchum sat on a stool, wearing a blue denim shirt, his straight white hair down to his shoulders. He was accompanied by guitarist Kenny Grimes, who has played and toured with country greats like Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and The Flatlanders.
Ketchum’s guitar playing is much more limited these days, due to the multiple sclerosis that he’s been battling for the last 17 years or so, which has left him numb in one arm and unable to hold a guitar pick.
But his voice still sounded lovely, especially on thoughtful, moving songs like “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” “Past the Point of Rescue,” “Awaiting Redemption,” “Stay Forever,” “Too Many Memories” and “I Know Where Love Lives,” which he said was written for his first wife, Barbara.
After a dark period of five years when his illness kept him from touring or recording, Ketchum released “I’m the Troubadour” in 2014, and from that comeback album he offered “The Saddle,” which he dedicated to veterans and prefaced with a story about his work with the Wounded Warriors Project, which helps wounded veterans of military actions following Sept. 11, 2001.
Aside from the oft-dark subject matter of his songs, the 64-year-old seemed in fine spirits, telling irreverent jokes and one-liners (even if some were recycled from his show two years ago at The Egg in Albany).
This was a homecoming for the Greenwich native, who once played open mics at the legendary Saratoga Springs coffee house before moving to Austin, Texas, and Nashville, Tennessee, where he became a star.
“It’s so nice to be back here, at such a lovely spot. Lena made it all possible,” he said of the Caffè founder.
Ketchum finished the show with a series of crowd-pleasers: “Mama Knows the Highway,” prefaced with a bawdy story about getting flashed on the road by a female trucker; the naughty double-entendre of “A Polka Day”; “Small Town Saturday Night,” the sing-along hit that made him famous; and the sadly sentimental “Satisfied Mind.”