Trusting Twang

Jack Ingram

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Monte Warden, Kelly Willis, Kris McKay, and Bruce and Charlie Robison eat together occasionally. They're friends who make a living in the same circle and Austin is a small town. But when the group broke bread at La Zona Rosa last Spring, it was indeed a special occasion -- at least for Dallas' Jack Ingram.

"They were making an effort to say `Hello' and, `Okay, college-frat-country-rocker, we listened to your stuff and you pass,'" says Ingram of the dinner invite. "It meant the world to me, because Austin is pretty intimidating. And for me to have these people I really respect open-arm me was a pretty huge thing."

Despite the Austin all-star embrace, however, the whispers about Ingram's credibility didn't vanish with a few enchiladas and Coronas. To some, he's still just that "college-frat-country-rocker" fresh out of Southern Methodist University, or even worse, a solo hillbilly version of Jackopierce. In fact, Ingram's last appearance in these pages tracked his run through the "Party Circuit" (Vol. 16, No. 13), a string of regional fraternity gigs upon which Ingram cut his teeth.

On the other hand, Ingram's detractors probably haven't heard Ingram's ambitious new major label debut, Livin' or Dyin'. For one thing, it was produced by a guy that has almost too much credibility, Steve Earle. And while the Nashville outlaw will no doubt get a lot of the credit for what is really Ingram's own maturation, the depth of the songs on Livin' or Dyin' and the retro-simplicity of Ingram's voice ought to go far in debunking the myth that collegiate country is something of an oxymoron.

"I've never really seen the credibility thing come up in reviews, or read anyone just label it as dumbass college country," says the 26-year-old Ingram. "Some people may think, `That's that frat guy' and mention my name with other bands that they don't respect. I've always felt that. But there's a lot of bands that I don't really like or respect and I can't make everybody like me. And yet, most of the people that I wanted to gain their respect and wanted them to come see a show, have given me that respect.... As time goes by there's separation, you get older and mature. I'm not the same college country dude that I was a year and half ago."

In fact, what may bother some people is that just seven years ago, Ingram didn't play or write at all. "In high school, I always had something going on and in college I didn't have to get up at 7am, so I was doing a lot of sleeping -- generally not doing shit," says Ingram, who finally picked up the guitar in the fall of '89 as an SMU freshman. With a $100 guitar, a few chords of practical knowledge, and a songbook of Willie Nelson's greatest hits, Ingram began writing his own songs within weeks. "All the ones I was learning were 1-4-5, so I knew it had to be all about melodies and words," explains Ingram.

As it turns out, Ingram didn't need much more than that. With a few originals of his own, and a few covers by the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen, Ingram jumped headfirst into performing, starting with open-mike nights at the Rhythm Room in Dallas' Deep Ellum. There, he began to develop his own identity, and for better or worse, a fanbase of his classmates. By the spring of '90, after 10 of his friends celebrated his first gig at Adair's by staying at the bar all night, Ingram was offered a regular Tuesday night residency there. "People kept coming every Tuesday, because in college, if nothing is going on Wednesdays, Tuesday is a Saturday night. Anybody that had Wednesday off started going to Adair's," says Ingram of the scene and setting for his third independent album, Live at Adair's.

Before long, Adair's was doing brisk bar business and Ingram was getting solid experience in a situation he believed had no real career repercussions. Yet it was perhaps because of his success at Adair's that Ingram decided to take a sabbatical, venturing to Austin in his junior year of college for a string of summer courses at UT and a residency on Mondays and Thursdays at the Cloak Room. Like Adair's, the Cloak Room was a non-traditional venue, known more for its political deals than record deals. According to Ingram, that was the whole point.

"I was 21, and for me to be under any intense scrutiny as a songwriter, performer, or player would have been unfair to me," he explains. "So I was careful never to put myself in that position, and to get my shit together low-key."

But Ingram's success back at Adair's did indeed have repercussions, in that the money and word-of-mouth buzz now gave him the opportunity to tour regionally. And what started as his playing three-party weekends on the "Southwest Conference Tour" (Waco, Austin, and College Station), gave way to more and more real club gigs and far fewer parties. By then, Ingram had a backing outfit he could afford to pay and call his own -- the Beat Up Ford Band -- 30 or so originals, and a faithful audience that would eventually go on to buy a combined 30,000 copies of his first three self-released albums.

"I don't think there was necessarily a certain appeal that I had that attracted the college kids," says Ingram. "It's just that I asked whoever I knew to come, and who I knew were college kids. That's how that got to be and I'm glad for it. Not only did it create a way for me to stick to doing what I was doing after college, but I'm also positive it made me better. You've seen college crowds, they can be really hard to work with. It made me force myself to feel proud of what I was doing, become a true performer, and make them watch. If you don't really feel good about what you're doing in your heart and you play for people who are talking and not listening, you can feel like a big poser when you walk out. I did that a couple of times, and then I was like, `Let's go practice and get good before we put ourselves through that again.' At least then, we knew in our hearts we were good."

By 1995, Ingram's string of sold-out shows and brisk indie album sales made him a natural major-label contender, although he admits that his manager, Ken Levitan, landed a Warner Bros. contract based more on Levitan's reputation than Ingram's. "There was no courting, they were cutting a deal," says Ingram of his power lunch with Warner Bros. In truth, Levitan, who also manages heavyweights like Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Joe Ely, and Los Lobos, was calling in a favor, assuring the label that with Ingram's indie album sales they could at least make their money back.

Shortly thereafter, Levitan was named president of Rising Tide, an upstart Nashville-based MCA-affiliate, but it only took another lunch with Warner Bros. to undo the contract. And while Ingram joined Levitan at Rising Tide, just two weeks later, Charlie Robison got a development deal with Warner Bros. that failed to produce an album. "He stayed true to what he was doing and [Warner Bros.] didn't know how to deal with it," says Ingram. "I'm thinking that's what would've happened with me, and I thank God it wasn't me. Charlie will get a deal anyway and it will work out, but that's a lot of hell to go through."

So far, Ingram's life at Rising Tide has been relatively easy. When he realized that most of the producers on his wish list had worked with Earle at some point, the label taped one of Ingram's House of Blues appearances and got Earle to listen. Ingram says that Earle, who produces with Ray Kennedy as the "Twang Trust," liked the tape, but only agreed to produce the album after Ingram reminded him they'd be using the Beat Up Ford Band. "I told Steve we wouldn't be doing the Nashville studio thing," Ingram says. "And Steve said `Right on, that's what I wanted to hear. Let's do it.'"

For Ingram's skeptics, hooking up with the Twang Trust looked like a convenient marketing ploy for Ingram to siphon Nashville street credibility from Earle. And while Ingram contends that reviewers generally shy away from his credibility issues, already Texas Monthly says Livin' or Dyin' makes "Ingram sound more like -- surprise? -- Steve Earle than did Ingram's three prior independent CD's." Will Ingram be spending '97 answering questions about copping from Earle's bag?

"It's the voice," says Ingram, "in that I'm playing country music with a non-traditional country voice. If you do that, they're going to say you sound like Guy Clark or Steve Earle. And if Guy Clark had produced this, there would have been the Guy Clark comparisons. I'm cool with that, because anything that comes up with credibility, I make sure that I'm standing square in the ground first before I invite it. I knew there would be comparison, but let them fire. Steve Earle is an influence, but I'm not trying to be like Willie Nelson either, and he's my hero."

Whatever else the Earle-Ingram connection brought to the production board, it's clear Earle deserves credit for gracefully walking the fine line between radio-ready cleanliness and live integrity. And while there's not a track on Livin' or Dyin' that wouldn't sound right at home on either Top-40 country or Americana radio, there's also an oddly organic live energy that holds the singles together, creating something besides just a carefully sequenced record.

"Live is still my element," says Ingram. "And the great thing about Steve and Ray is that they understood that the records I dig have that feel of, `How did they do that? Is that live?' That's the way I always wanted to make a record. The first couple of records, I was just basically saying here's what I wanted to do, and if somebody said that's not the way they do it, I conceded. But with Steve, all the ideas that I had about making records, from using your own band to keeping the mistakes, he would dig also. He'd go in there, press the red button and keep it going, getting whatever we'd say or play because you just never know. A lot of people don't do that... and that's why a lot of country records are real stale. Good or bad, this record isn't stale."

After a month to listen to the record's first single, "That's Not Me," country radio has yet to commit to whether they feel Livin' or Dyin' is good or bad for their playlists.

So far, only a handful of standard country outlets have added "That's Not Me," the album's first single, and word is still out on whether Livin' or Dyin' will fit the standard country playlist. But while Ingram is downright insistent that he's a country artist, not an alternative country artist, he's had better luck at AAA and Americana radio, landing on the Number 12 spot of Gavin's Americana chart just a week before the album was released, March 25.

By inviting country radio program directors to see his latest tour -- which will feature two dates in May with Johnny Cash -- Ingram says he believes the live show will convince country radio he's the real trad deal. And in reality, Rising Tide has always set its sights on breaking the album's second single, "Flutter, " a Colin Boyd tune that took Ingram 11 minutes to play on Live at Adair's, but which Earle crafted into a sleek two-minute tune for Livin' or Dyin'.

"I think everybody plays with a band once and either digs it or ends up going back to folk," says Ingram of his frequent, 11-minute ramblin' jams and his reliance on the Beat Up Ford band, a collection of Deep Ellum rock all-stars from bands as diverse as Brave Combo and Fever in the Funkhouse. "But I loved the band thing immediately, the push and pull, not knowing where the next step is. Performing has been a great joy, because I've gotten to the point where I can figure out why we're not connecting and make it connect. And when it's not connecting, it's usually my fault -- being intimidated and drawing in. Every time I've ever laid it out and said, `Here we are, throw rocks, throw roses, hate us, love us, fuck you if you don't make a decision.' Every time I've ever done that, we've had a great show."

Perhaps because he wrote 10 of the 14 songs on his debut -- a rare feat for artists chasing the traditional country brass ring -- Ingram says he is also growing increasingly confident about his songwriting skills. Last year, a mutual friend of Ingram and Bruce Robison asked Ingram if he would agree to meet Robison and write with the prolific local songwriter. Ingram declined, reportedly telling the friend, "There's nothing I can bring to that table." Now, Ingram says he's at a point where he's looking forward to calling Robison and asking if they could write a song together.

"I'm into that now," says Ingram, who co-wrote the album's last track, "Airways Motel," with last year's touring partner, Todd Snider. "But I really did feel that way. I was like, `No, I don't want to do that yet.' Because once you go there with a guy that you really respect, and do something peer to peer, there's no turning back. Once he says that really wasn't any fun, it takes a lot to redeem yourself. I didn't want to have to do that with Bruce, and it was kind of like my decision to play small bars that didn't have many ramifications. Because I know that once you get in front of people, that whole first impression thing, you can't take it back."

But while Ingram may have the large regional fanbase and indie record sales, the truth is that most of the country will be getting their first impression of Ingram from Livin' or Dyin' or the tour -- not from the collegiate hype or credibility issues.

"It's a much larger pond and it's a little like starting over, except that I can always count on going out and playing live. But it's been right on track, just the way I wanted it.... We waited, we had the deal a year and half ago, and I wanted to wait. I wanted to write for the record after we got the deal, not use all the old songs, because I'm in a way different place.

"And a lot of bands come out of the studio, hear it, aren't so sure and reconsider what they're doing. I'm very sure about it. Not so sure that it's going to sell, but I know that if it doesn't sell, there's no blame. Everybody did the right thing... fought the good fight."

Jack Ingram plays a Waterloo Records in-store today, Thursday, April 3, at 5pm, and later that night at La Zona Rosa.

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