I’m slow, but I’m steady. I prize the work more than the pay. I’m rough and I’m ready, livin’ the carpenter’s way” – Hal Ketchum from “Carpenter’s Way”
Between turns as a master carpenter, Hal Ketchum just happened to make it big as a country-music superstar. While it’s easy to too often compare songsmithing to a trade like carpentry, the metaphor makes more sense for a man who is a master of both.
“I Miss My Mary” comes from Hal’s first mainstream record, Past the Point of Rescue, released in 1991. The opening line of “Mary” was also the title of his first independent album Threadbare Alibis from 1986. By the time he was signed to a major label, Hal had gone back to full-time woodworking, not sure if he’d get his shot in the music world, but Past the Point of Rescue was an instant success. Fueled by the single “Small Town Saturday Night” (and a video full of little people!), the album holds up past the hits. It’s rich with the words and sounds of a true singer-songwriter in the tradition of James Taylor, or John Denver. Songs like “Old Soldiers”, “I Know Where Love Lives”, and “I Miss My Mary” paint stories in song and show that a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a well-written song can create a thousand pictures in your mind.
The true strength of this song undoubtedly lies in its lyrics, but as we’ve seen in past posts, the greatest lyrics in the world are still only half of a great song. In the case of “Mary”, Hal keeps the hooks simple, but brings just enough bite to pull you deep into the story. Starting with a short instrumental intro, the song sets a tone of quiet remorse, as the singer tells of leaving his love and their unborn child. When the scene shifts to the present where he “draws his pay down at the docks”, the production picks up with a steady beat, building up to the chorus and the memorable line, “Lover of a drink… lover of a fight!” The line is delivered with such force as to evoke visions of this rough and tumble Navy man mixing it up with the locals.
Through every stage of the song, we feel what Mary’s ex does, regret that he’s trying to drown with drink. After the initial story setting the stage for where he is now, verse one ends with “the light shines through this bottle, memories all fade to black”, like he doesn’t want to think anymore and the gin takes over. To the chorus where the singer asks “Will I see you out on the street tonight?” It’s not clear who he’s challenging, maybe himself? The man’s words contradict themselves often. He says “I will never fear for I will never feel”, but then the song’s title follows “I miss my Mary tonight”, like all his bluster is finally overwhelmed by her memory. Verse two features one of the best musical descriptions of tattoos you’ll ever hear. He never says the actual word, but we know exactly what he’s describing. Finally, his “Mary’s turned to ashes while the oceans turn to gin”.
If you wrote off Hal Ketchum as just another country radio clone from its boom in the early ‘90s, you’re missing out on some great songs. “I Miss My Mary” and the entire Past the Point of Rescue album are worth giving a second look to hear a rare writing and vocal talent who managed to break through the most popular airwaves of radio. Just don’t get too wrapped up in the song and challenge your neighbor to a drunken brawl in the street!Preview I Miss My Mary