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Stricken with a life-threatening illness, Hal Ketchum still feels lucky

Story by Tom Roland

Hal Ketchum looks peaceful as he leans back on his chair. He's holed up in an abandoned office at the Coach House Theatre in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., where he will perform this evening.

Dust blankets a flimsy desktop, dried candle wax makes the seats lumpy, and the thin walls make shouting necessary to be heard above the warm-up band playing downstairs.

Hal's personal conditions are likewise less than perfect. He recently discovered he has multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease for which there is no cure. Yet he seems at ease with his life.

"I went through about a month of fear and mourning," he admits, "and all the things that you deal with when you deal with your own mortality."

Hal has been facing this possibility for some time. His mother had MS, and he found out on his 45th birthday, four years ago, that he had transverse myelitis, often a precursor of the disease. "It is transverse myelitis until proven otherwise," explains Hal. "If it's recurring, then the diagnosis becomes MS."

Multiple sclerosis involves the deterioration of protective layers around nerve fibers in the brain and spinal column. It can alter vision and muscle coordination, and some patients are permanently disabled.

Others - including Donna Fargo, who was diagnosed with MS in 1979, and Clay Walker, who has had it since 1996 - suffer occasional flare-ups, but find the disease manageable.

"The more people I tell, the better I feel about it," notes Hal. "Initially I was like, 'I'm not gonna say a word about this - I don't wanna sabotage my shows, or mess up my living.' But I feel freer if I talk about it a little bit.

"I have my days when I'm a little slow. I was never the sharpest knife in the drawer anyway," he chuckles. "My speech gets impaired if I get real tired, and my vision is horrendous. Now I realize why I'm such a terrible driver! All these things are sort of coming to light."

Despite the hardships, the disease has actually added a sense of perspective to Hal's outlook. "Things that used to be huge, they're really not huge," he reasons. "There's only a couple huge things."

Hal was pretty huge himself in the early 1990s, hitting the Top 10 with "Small Town Saturday Night," "Past The Point Of Rescue" and "Stay Forever," among others. In the middle of that run, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. But his commercial fortunes dimmed by mid-decade, even if the quality of his work never let up. That's fine by him - Hal never made music with stardom in mind anyway.

"It is self-expression for me, and I'm really not in it for any other reason," he says. "I had my big day in the sun, and I may get another, but I don't live for that."

Chasing after megastardom, he figures, has its drawbacks. "A person can miss so much day-to-day life," says Hal, who lives in Nashville with his wife, Gina. "You can miss so many beautiful moments and ideas if your objective is to be king of the hill - and nobody stays on top of the hill anyway. It's nice to have been on top of the hill, and now sorta be out."

He may be out of the Top 10, but he's certainly not out of commission. Hal's eighth album, The King Of Love, is slated for release in March. One of its songs, "Everytime I Look In Your Eyes," will be featured in the upcoming Sylvester Stallone movie Avenging Angelo.

Already released overseas, The King Of Love features some ragged, Dixie-fried material, but also shows a more tender side. That's particularly true of the closing number, "The Angel Song," written for his kids: Never run faster than your angels can fly, he sings in the chorus.

"My children have guardian angels," Hal explains. The lyrics are his way of praying the kids will remain safe, even when they are not in his care. "It's like, 'Don't get too far ahead of whatever your field of protection is, and you'll probably be all right. Stay within the realm of grace and you'll be OK.' "

Hal is particularly sensitive where his children are concerned. They range in age from 28-year-old Sarah to 2-year-old Ruby Joy, with son Graham, 25, and daughter, Fana Rose, 5, in between.

Graham actually co-wrote one of Hal's new songs, "On Her Own Time." "He brought me these lyrics," Hal recalls. "He doesn't sing and doesn't play, but he writes these beautiful poems - he's kind of a stream-of-consciousness kind of guy. He said, 'Dad, I don't know if you can do anything with this ... ' But I just did a Van Morrison kind of melody and turned it into a beautiful song. That's a new way to encourage him and to encourage me."

Hal has plenty to be encouraged about. He's written a couple of children's books, and though he has yet to find a publisher for them, it's expanded his creative outlets. And he's always had painting as a form of expression - in fact, some of his work was displayed at a Santa Fe art gallery in December.

"Painting is scary," he confesses. "There are periods where I can approach a canvas with a great idea and get it, and then go one brushstroke and it disappears. It's a very elusive art form. And the thing to do is just set it aside, start something else, learn to like it - or change it. Wake up in the morning, or the middle of the night, and go, 'Crimson! Crimson! That's it!' And it works."

Still, nothing works for Hal quite like music. He must give himself three injections a week for his MS - and he's also trying some Eastern herbal remedies, including a plant he says tastes "like furniture polish" - but he finds that performing is still the best medicine. "Singing's good for me," he says. "I can't play guitar anymore - my left hand just won't. So I'm learning to enjoy the reason I came here, which is to sing.

"I'm always charged up by the show. I've not had a down concert. The shows really elevate. It's a period of time where the last thing on my mind is me."