“Small Town Saturday Night”
Written by Pat Alger and Hank DeVito
Radio & Records
#1 (1 week)
August 16, 1991
A miraculous moment of meritocracy.
The Road to No. 1
I mean, seriously.
Hal Ketchum was a New Yorker nearing forty and recording for an independent label when he scored his breakthrough hit and his only chart-topper.
Raised in Greenwich, he was in an R&B band by his mid-teens, and was heavily influenced by folk music during his formative years. A move to Austin in the early eighties exposed him to that city’s unique music scene, and while he was getting more familiar with incorporating country elements into his sound, he was still pursuing folk stardom in the mid-eighties. He won a folk songwriting contest and recorded his first indie album, Threadbare Alibis, in 1988 for Watermelon Records.
A move to Nashville landed him a deal with Curb Records, which was already one of the few independent labels able to break through on the charts, often by collaborating with a major label. But Ketchum’s debut for Curb, Past the Point of Rescue, featured no such partnership. It still resulted in a No. 1 hit, a remarkable example of the meritocracy of this era at country radio.
The No. 1
“Small Town Saturday Night” broke through because it’s simply a fantastic record, one of the best hits of this golden era in country music.
Fusing folk and rockabilly sounds with a classic country theme of living in – and leaving – a small town, it’s rich with sharply drawn characters and scenarios, with that whiff of bittersweet nostalgia that suggests it’s being written and sung by people who’ve left a small town behind.
It’s intelligent and incredibly literate, with a keen eye for both the details of small town life and the motivation driving the characters who stay (“Gotta be bad to have a good time”) and those who leave (“They…put the pedal to the metal before they change their mind.”)
Absolute perfection from start to finish.
The Road From No. 1
Hal Ketchum remained a hitmaker for much of the nineties, with his first three studio albums for Curb all producing top ten hits. He stayed through the label through the following decade, continuing to release critically acclaimed albums and remaining a popular act on the live circuit.
He faced health challenges, first with a neurological disorder that required him to relearn how to play the guitar, and then with dementia, which led to his early retirement from the road in 2019. Sadly, the latter condition claimed his life in 2020, silencing the voice of a remarkable talent who has remained one of the most heartwarming success stories of the last thirty years.
“Small Town Saturday Night” gets an A.