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Hal Ketchum returns with a new baby and a new career outlook

Story by Wendy Newcomer • Photos by Chuck Jones

His new album is called Lucky Man - and Hal Ketchum couldn't agree more. "I am truly blessed," he declares from the living room of his Nashville home. "I feel very fortunate."

His career took off like a rocket in 1991 with the No. 2 hit "Small Town Saturday Night" and continued for the next several years with singles such as "I Know Where Love Lives," "Sure Love" and "Hearts Are Gonna Roll." But after "Stay Forever," his last Top 10 hit in 1995, Hal's career stalled.

As the '90s came to a close, Hal was re-energized and ready to refocus. But a pair of professional and personal setbacks dealt him a major blow. His last album, 1999's Awaiting Redemption, was mired in disappointment - finally released after several delays, it got little airplay and sold poorly. At the same time, Hal was fighting a debilitating, nerve-damaging neurological disorder, acute transverse myelitis (ATM), which threatened to put an end to his days as a performer.

But by the time he finished Lucky Man, Hal was on the mend from ATM and encouraged by the chart surge of the CD's first single, "She Is." His inspiration for the song was the No. 1 lady in his life, wife Gina.

"It's a stone love song," he says with a smile. "I wrote it when Gina and I were living in Chicago. It was a poem initially, and then I studied it for a few days and let the music come to me."

Hal wrote seven songs for the new album, and then hooked up with his longtime friend, singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell, to produce.

"From the first session I knew Rodney was the right choice as producer," admits Hal. "He's made so many records, for himself and other artists. He sees the whole picture."

And Hal's picture included Dolly Parton. Rodney paired Hal with the legendary singer on the soaring duet "Two Of The Lucky Ones." Hal recalls, "Rodney said, 'Who would you like to work with?' I said, 'Dolly Parton.'

"Then I had to pinch myself listening to the playback of Dolly singing. We're all inclined to think of her in almost a mythological sense. People see the cosmetic side of her and sometimes overlook her brilliance as a great writer and singer."

Hal's album isn't the only new thing in his life. In the span of only a few years, he's gone from bachelor to newlywed to new dad. He and Gina adopted now-3-year-old Fana Rose in December of 1999.

"On our first real date I told Gina I wanted to adopt children," says Hal. "She said, 'I'd like to do that, too.' We cold-called an agency out of the Yellow Pages in Chicago to make some basic inquiries. The woman said, 'I have a little girl for you.'

"I said, 'I'm not so sure.' And she said, 'Trust me. I have a child for you.' She sent a picture of Fanny to us the next day. We flew to Bulgaria and drove cross-country to the orphanage - and said, 'Yes.' The toughest part was leaving her there for six months while the paperwork was done."

Suddenly, Fanny's laughter cascades down the hall. Then she bounces into the room and catches Hal's eye. Clearly, she's captured her daddy's heart.

"Fanny's a very adaptable human being with a great spirit," praises Hal. "She's got a wonderful personality. We didn't give her that - she already had it. She was my baby the minute I saw her and the minute I carried her out of that place. She was a Ketchum."

The Ketchum family soon increased again - this time when Gina received the surprising news that she was pregnant with daughter Ruby Joy, now four months old. It was surprising because Hal - who'd had a vasectomy at age 26 and later underwent surgery to reverse it - had been told by doctors the chances were slim the reversal procedure would work.

"I said, 'Let's do it anyway and we'll just pray.' And God listens. I know for a fact because my life has been filled with a lot of wonderful, small miracles. Ruby Joy is another one."

Hal, who has two children from a previous marriage, is truly enjoying fatherhood the second time around.

"I've always loved little babies," he confesses. "I'm enjoying myself as much or more this time around because I'm in a different time in my life. I'm not as driven to succeed as I used to be. Now I can enjoy the success that came to me and my family simultaneously - and not be so hell-bent on proving myself or achieving great things."

These days the simple things are great. "Fanny and I planted a little shrub this morning," says Hal. "Getting down on the level of a 3-year-old kid and doing stuff like that is much more enjoyable than any Grammy nomination or world concert."

Gardening isn't the only thing Hal does around the house. The walls of chez Ketchum are filled with paintings by the artist-in-residence. "I've been painting since I was a young man," he acknowledges. "I actually made it out of high school on an art scholarship, because I was pretty useless as a student the last couple of years. So I just took four courses of art a day and painted and drew a lot."

As "She Is" steadily climbs the charts, Hal relishes his return to radio and prepares for a summer tour. "I've been doing this for 15 years," he explains. "It really is a gift.

"It's good to be back - and to realize that nobody took my job while I was gone!"