Retro Review: Hal Ketchum, “Sure Love”

It’s time to ask an important question: What makes a love song good?

Romantic ballads have been a cornerstone of country music since Ben Franklin invented the steel guitar, but lately the genre can’t seem to find the proper balance for their love songs. From Bro-Country to Boyfriend country, most love songs seem to end up as too saccharine, too sleazy, or too sterile (witness the many failed sex jams that have been foisted on us over the last few years). I just don’t feel love songs the way I used to, and while perhaps this fact says more about me than it does country music, it brings us back to the same question: Why?

As luck would have it, lately I’ve been going back through the discography of Hal Ketchum, a neotraditional artist that had a moment, but not a Billboard #1 single, in the early 1990s. (Side note: The fact that “Small Town Saturday Night” had to settle for an Radio & Records #1 is an absolute travesty, and I demand that the House Judiciary Committee open an investigation into this at once—it’s far more important than anything they’ll find on Hunter Biden’s laptop.) “Sure Love” was released in 1992, serving as the leadoff single and title track for his second major-label album, and at first glance it’s the sort of off-the-shelf love song that was typical of the era. So why am I so eager to revisit this track when I can’t wait to dump most of today’s tracks once the review is finished?

Let’s start with the production, which on paper is the exact same sort of arrangement you might hear today: Acoustic guitars, electric guitars, keyboards, and drums. However, the double whammy of a) the acoustic guitar and piano being the primary melody carriers and b) the complete lack of synthetic elements in the mix gives this song a warmer, softer vibe in comparison to the slicker, sharper, and often colder feel of modern tracks. The electric guitars still get their moment in the sun, of course, but both they and the drum set are relatively quiet in the mix, which helps the instruments blend together to create a richer, fuller sound that’s easier on the ears than the thinner, more-volume-dependent mixes of today. (You can actually pick out individual pieces of this arrangement are they’re playing, a stark contrast to the walls of noise we keep running into nowadays.) Finally, the bright instrument tones here strikes what seems like the right note for such a song: Love should be pleasant and fun, and that’s exactly the mood that’s set. Despite playing with basically the same set of Legos that people have today, the producer here does a nice job creating a mix that captures the joy of romance and is also a joy to hear, and I only wish today’s booth occupants were taking notes.

If there’s one fundamental truth about a love song, it’s that the quality of the person behind the mic really matters. What kind of surprised me when revisiting this track is that when Ketchum arrived on the scene, he was in the same position as, say, an EARNEST or a Shane Profitt: An obvious clone of a bigger star of the era. (In Ketchum’s case, that star was Vince Gill, who was at the peak of his powers in the front half of the 1990s.) Unlike the knock-off artists of today, however, Ketchum has some serious charisma behind his delivery, and pulls off a nice trick here by giving off a relaxed, easygoing vibe while still managing to convey the depths of his feelings. It’s a true Goldilocks performance: Just enough energy to keep the song moving, just enough emotion to feel earnest without being overbearing, and more than enough charm to sell the song and fell believable in the narrator’s role. (There’s also a thoughtful side to him that allows him to handle flowery language like the writing here without feeling awkward. Seriously, can you imagine a dudebro like Mitchell Tenpenny trying to sing this song?) Despite his vocal similarities to Gill, he never felt like an inferior or copycat performer—he was talented enough to distinguish himself as a great artist in his own right, and this song stands as proof.

As far as the writing goes, there’s a maturity to this song that a lot of tracks these days seem to lack—heck, it comes out right out and says it on the first verse (“Some may take love casually, but I know what it’s worth to me”). It may eschew finer details for broader, grander statements of devotion, but a) it means that we’re not bombarded by “country” buzzwords, and b) it allows the writers to style it up with their prose, dropping great lines like “I would chase old ghosts and watch them scatter” and “Drop old dreams and watch them shatter” that suggest a level of skill and experience in the narrator that many artists simply don’t have. (It feels surprisingly highbrow when you dig deep into it, which is something most songs today could never be accused of.) We may not know much about the relationship itself, but we know that the narrator’s feelings run deep, and that they truly cherish the relationship they found. Sure, there are a few less-than-inspired lines here (the opening “There’s a new star in my sky, there’s a new song in my life” is honestly pretty meh), but they leave enough handholds for a great artist to infuse these lines with meaning, and Ketchum does the rest and takes the song to the next level.

Hal Ketchum died of early-onset dementia back in 2020, but despite his relative lack of chart success he left a significant musical legacy that still holds up pretty well in 2023. “Sure Love” is far from his best song, but it’s a pretty solid effort nonetheless, and perhaps provides a blueprint for how today’s romantic ballads could be improved. (Of course, finding a voice—or an artist—like Ketchum’s is the first step, and it’s no easy task.) There are some notable differences between between this song and those currently on the radio, but there are some notable similarities, which gives me hope that country music can someday make love songs that feel meaningful again.

Rating: 6/10. This one’s worth a few spins to see how it suits you.