His name is Jack Ingram, and he plays country music
Midway through virtually every live performance, Jack Ingram finds an appropriate instrumental break and dives headlong into a loosely scripted piece of stage banter:
"When you go to work tomorrow, people are going to ask where you went tonight. I want you to tell them you came here and saw a guy named Jack Ingram."
"With any luck, there's a lot of applause right there," notes Ingram, running through the rap for a tape recorder over coffee at Central Market.
"Then they're going to ask you what kind of music I play. You tell them that I play country music. And when they tell you and they will that they're glad they didn't go because they hate country music, you tell them they haven't seen Jack Ingram's country music. I am Jack Ingram, and I play country music. It's not that kind of country music. It's this kind of country music."
"Then, just for impact, I bring it around again," motions Ingram, setting up a two-line mantra that's singularly aggressive and defensive.
"My name is Jack Ingram. I play country music."
Night in, night out, it's a crowd pleaser, even if the entire exercise may soon be obsolete. If the next 12 months play out like he hopes, Ingram will have made major strides toward closing the gap between Jack Ingram's country music and country music itself. Ingram is a guy who will look you dead in the eye and tell you he doesn't just want to sell a million albums. He wants to be country music. Since that level of stardom can't just be willed, it doesn't hurt that some of Nashville's biggest players are in on the plan.
For early proof, check your television listings. Phase one of Ingram's offensive starts Friday night on CMT. This year's "Outlaws" concert, one of the music channel's highest rated annual events, features Toby Keith, Merle Haggard, Shelby Lynne, Billy Joe Shaver, and yes, Jack Ingram. Millions will see Ingram play two songs with the house band. Then they'll see him duet with Toby Keith. It's mainstream country exposure you can't buy, unless the guy doing the asking is the biggest name in mainstream country.
Last month, Keith and veteran Nashville record executive Scott Borchetta announced Ingram as the first of three signings to their Big Machine Records, a new label built around a staff of A-list radio and promotions legends. Ingram's introductory live album isn't due until January, but one of its two new studio tracks, "Wherever You Are," is already charting three weeks before Big Machine begins asking radio to play it. Add a big-budget video and a cross-country tour of radio station meet 'n' greets, and you've got a thoroughly integrated awareness campaign. For Ingram, who's already done time at two major labels, it's not just the chance for a perennial bridesmaid to reach for the ring, it's proof that good things come to those who wait.
"I've put in the miles," says the 34-year-old, who moved to Austin from Dallas earlier this summer. "I've believed in myself, and I've been patient. A few years ago, I had a radio promotion guy tell me, 'You're in line. Just wait it out. I've seen a dozen guys like you in line, and they get out of line and begin chasing other things because they're not patient. Just stay in line.'
"It can be frustrating, but sometimes you've got to wait for things to come around. That's what I've done."
What Ingram waited for was a wind shift at country radio. Musically, what he's been doing for close to a decade now isn't far removed from the formula that's landed Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, and Gary Allen atop the charts. Then there's Ingram's friend and frequent writing partner Bruce Robison, responsible for penning hits for the Dixie Chicks, George Strait, and Tim McGraw. That kind of association never hurts in Nashville. Of course it goes without saying that credible songwriting is a moot point if your production doesn't sound like the rest of the country chart, but Ingram's got that covered too. "Wherever You Are" is every bit as slick as it is catchy.
"It's the shiniest, glossiest song I've ever cut," he admits. "I'm not going to try and spin it; as good as it's become, there are still elements of country music radio that are slick and produced. And at some point, if I want people to hear a song about my daughter, I'm going to have to be heard in their world. It's a big fucking business with lots of rules, and I'm going to break a lot of them. But first, you have to get in their conference room."
Should Ingram infiltrate that inner sanctum, one of show business' rarest commodities is sure to connect with the suits just as it already connects with his audience: genuine charisma. There's a reason Ingram played the heartthrob in Lee Ann Womack's recent "I May Hate Myself in the Morning" video. He's got the George Clooney factor: Women respond to the long blond hair, chiseled jaw, and easy confidence, while men typically think he'd be a cool guy to share a beer with. If there's anything less than immensely likable about him, it might be his unabashed desire for the brass ring. Traditionally, Austin musicians lean more toward casual humility than naked ambition. For better or worse, he says he's wired to want more.
"When I play golf, I'll birdie and think, 'Wow. I could probably be on the Senior Tour one day.' It's not that I'm cocky or think I'm a great golfer," he explains. "But when I do something, it's all I want to do. I want to be married forever. I want to sell millions of records. I want a career like my heroes. Eventually, I want people to see me like they do Springsteen or Willie. I know that's some lofty shit to be chasing, but it's just the way I'm built. I don't know why, but it's the way I've always been."
Perhaps it's only natural that balancing out such confidence is a little voice inside Ingram's head that says maybe he's setting himself up for a fall.
"Maybe I'll have egg on my face," he admits. "I know it would be much easier to try and sell 30,000 records on my own."
Maybe so, but he's been there, done that already. In 1990, Ingram started out at Deep Ellum open mics while a freshman at Southern Methodist University. By the time he picked up his diploma, he skipped the job fairs to concentrate on his own cottage industry. Playing frat houses and college pubs on what he dubbed the "Southwest Conference Tour" (Waco, Austin, and College Station) quickly gave way to more club gigs and fewer keggers. By '96, Ingram was regularly filling 1,000-seaters across the state.
While this period helped lay the blueprint for the newfangled Texas country movement, Ingram wasn't exactly happy being the poster boy for a scene that put a premium on beer over substance. For many, one of the things that made Jack Ingram so likable was that he kept the movement he helped define at arm's length. Coming to terms with what he wrought was just as important as avoiding its pitfalls.
"For the longest time, Robert Earl Keen hated me," claims Ingram. "He hated me because I handed him the first record I ever made. It was the only impression of me he ever made. He said to himself, 'This shit sucks and people are comparing him to me.' I don't begrudge him that. I understand that feeling now.
"So for a few years I didn't accept what was going on in Texas and pretended I didn't care. That's where the Robert Earl lesson came into play. I didn't like it when a guy I looked up to wrote me off on his first impression. So I said, 'Let me re-evaluate this right now so I don't get caught being pissed off for a lot of years.' I knew I wasn't going away no matter how much Robert hated me. And that meant these kids probably weren't going away either."
While playing his fair share of shows with Pat Green and Cory Morrow, Ingram's focus has almost always been on breaking into Nashville. In 1996, he signed with Rising Tide, an MCA-affiliated imprint that paired Ingram with the Twang Trust, production team Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy. The result, Livin' or Dyin', did the latter commercially and taught Ingram an important life lesson.
"Working with Steve, I began to understand his success. His songs, his personality grew out of him giving himself permission to be very emotional, a tool I didn't have yet," says Ingram, who remembers Earle signing on only after hearing Ingram was insistent on recording with his own Beat Up Ford band. "His image is what it is. People that have these strong images have them because they gave themselves permission to go ahead and go all the way."
Ingram took that new attitude into his next deal, a two-album run with Sony Nashville's Lucky Dog imprint. 1999's Hey You and 2002's Electric built on one another in both spirit and substance, but not for a moment did Ingram look like a label priority. He believes they swallowed the cliché that he was too rock for country radio and too country for rock radio. Maybe they were right.
Whether the discs were commercially viable to a mass market or not, both Sony efforts document the steady growth of Ingram's songwriting. It's why A-list Nashville writers like Robison, Jim Lauderdale, and Tom Littlefield have agreed to write with him. When that material is played on Ingram's annual Acoustic Motel tours, it's easy to see just how bravely he's wears his heart on his sleeve. Even if the bulk of them are variations on a simple theme: I fucked up, and my wife hates me.
"There's definitely a running theme of struggle," he acknowledges, scanning the Central Market deck. "I love you/you hate me is pretty universal. Everyone here today is a product of some fucked-up personal relationship. Every woman here could sit down and say, 'You're not going to believe what that asshole did.' And suddenly, everyone's laughing and having a good time talking about how fucked up they are. I like getting a whole audience to realize that we're all fucked up and trying to figure it out. That's what got me into songwriting in the first place."
Ironically, it wasn't even an Ingram song that launched phase two of his career. In 2003, Dallas/Ft. Worth's 99.5 the Wolf added an unreleased track from Electric, "A Little Bit," to it's rotation. The song, written by then Austinite Blu Sanders, did so well that even after Sony and Ingram parted ways, the label rushed an EP of unreleased Electric material, Extra Volts, into stores.
"It changed my world," reveals Ingram. "It charted at a format where I'd had three strikes and lost. One of the biggest mainstream country stations on the planet took a song that wasn't even on the record and did well with it. It said this could work, in the worst set of circumstances, with all the cards stacked against it.
"At the same time, I had to be very Zen about it. A song that wasn't mine had more success than any song I'd put out there. Looking at it realistically, it takes nothing away from my songwriting ability. I'm still the same songwriter I was before: good, bad, or indifferent. It frees me up to say, 'Give me the best song you have. If it fits the way I see myself, then I'm going to do it.' I know that if I have a hit, I'm more than a tree falling in the woods."
By all accounts, the success of "Little Bit" opened the doors to the Big Machine deal. It proved Ingram could chart as well as bend. Indeed, Nashville songwriter Jeremy Stover wrote "Wherever You Are," not Ingram. The latter insists he stands by the song line-for-line, even if it's got typically smoother edges than something he'd write for himself. Will it work? It'll be well into next year before we know if country radio and Jack Ingram are merely flirting with each other or headed into a long-term relationship. Due out Jan. 6, Live Wherever You Are features the single, another new recording, and a repackaged version of Ingram's Live at Gruene Hall disc. What is known already is that Ingram's headed to each meet 'n' greet and live show in front of a new audience of radio winners armed with thousands of gigs under his belt.
"The first impression now is going to be whether you like it or not that I'm a pro," says Ingram. "A lot of people don't know the fire inside of me to be on top, to be the best. I think that in a lot of ways I come off looking like I don't care because I don't want to look too ambitious. I don't know how to fix that except to be who I am and give myself permission to be ambitious.
"Is it overly ambitious to look at what my heroes have accomplished and want the same? We have halls of fame all over this country. They erect those statues for a reason. It's so people can look at them and be inspired. Without Joe DiMaggio there's no Derek Jeter. Jeter sat somewhere and said, 'I'm going to be a Hall of Famer.' I want to sell millions of records and play music for 50 years. I want to die that way. I don't want to work my ass off and not see the results I think I can. I believe I'm going to see results. I do."