By Richard Skanse
It seems like every time we’ve caught up with Jack Ingram in the past, he’s always been standing on the verge of something big. Long established as one of the most consistently talented and respected Texas country artists of his generation — heck, practically the first Texas country artist of his generation, having bridged the gap between Robert Earl Keen and the Pat Green brigade — Ingram has nevertheless spent most of his career aiming for something bigger than regional stardom. And to borrow a line from one of his early live staples, “there ain’t nothing wrong with that.” Because good as his first three, independent Texas releases were, Ingram’s best three albums were all made in Nashville. From 1997’s Steve Earle/Ray Kennedy-produced Livin’ or Dyin’ to 1999’s Hey You and especially 2002’s Electric, Ingram proved it was possible to keep one foot planted firmly on Lone Star soil and the other on Music Row without losing artistic dignity.
So when Lone Star Music featured Ingram as our Artist of the Month five years ago when Electric — his second album for major-label Sony — came out, we were pretty damn sure that record was going to be “the one” that finally did it for him. But it didn’t. Next thing we knew, Ingram was back to square one, working the regional scene as an independent artist. He put out three live albums, including 2004’s near-definitive Live at Gruene Hall: Happy Happy. The second half of the title came from a sardonic new Ingram original, “Happy Happy Country Country,” that sounded like a stiff middle finger to the mainstream country radio world that seemed to have spurned him for good. Things may not have worked out the way Ingram had hoped they would, but he couldn’t have closed the door on that long chapter of career with a better kiss-off.
Or at least, we thought it was a kiss-off. Turns out, he was just venting a little, and gearing up for another shot at the big time. Early last year, that Live at Gruene album was renamed Live Wherever You Are and re-released by an upstart Nashville label called Big Machine (a tiny little imprint of an even bigger machine, Universal). The track list had been amended slightly to make room for three new tunes, including a pair of new studio tracks — “Wherever You Are” and “Love You” — earmarked as singles. Ingram didn’t write either of those songs, but he sang ’em with the conviction of an artist who knew he had a couple of hits on his hands. It was just a matter of time before they, you know, hit. Which turned out to be only a few months after LoneStarMusic.com’s last chat with Jack last January. By summer, while Ingram was out on the road with Brooks & Dunn and Sheryl Crow (two separate tours at the same time), “Wherever You Are” hit No. 1 on the country chart. “Love You” would later make it to No. 12.
So here we are again, catching Ingram right on the brink of what seems to be the biggest record of his life. Things didn’t always pan out that way in the past, but this time, well … this is it. This is so certainly “it” that Ingram even named his new record — his first studio set in five years — This Is It (due March 27). Currently touring behind his third Top 20 country hit in a row (a somewhat controversial cover of Oklahoma rock band Hinder’s recent breakthrough single, “Lips of an Angel”), Ingram is staring down another long year of relentless touring and radio and press interviews. He’s going to see very little of his home in Austin in the next 12 months, but when he does get a chance to catch his breath, if he’s anything less than country music’s breakout “new artist” of the year, a lot of folks are gonna be scratching their heads. Because after “Lips” has run its course, the new album’s stuffed with damn-near sure-thing hits — and that’s just on the first half of the record, before you get to the really good stuff.
Yeah, this is it. Has to be.
Hello again, Jack. And congrats on yet another Top 20 hit. Is this getting old yet?
No! [Laughs] I think I have an itch that’s going to prove to be addictive.
It’s gotta be overwhelming to have worked so long for this kind of success, and then to have it hit like, boom-boom-boom! Even stretched out over a year, it’s really caught up with a vengeance.
Yeah. I’m just trying to get over the idea that it starts happening, and you start waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m trying to get over that and to get into the mindset of hoping that this will just be the first three [hits] of many.
Well, there better be more to come, right? I mean, calling the record This Is It — that’s pretty much like going “all in” even before you’ve seen the full hand, isn’t it?
[Laughs] Yeah. But the thought process behind the title was just how, you know — all those gigs, all those disappointments, all those miles … it was all leading somewhere. And this was it. It comes from a line in the song “Hold On,” that says, “Hold on, because baby, this is it.” Every time I sang that line I got choked up, because in my mind I was singing it to my family and the people closest to me. So I wrote that down as a title to remember, and it kept staring back at me until I knew … OK, that’s the title. It’s the idea of all the roads and all that experiences leading up to this moment. But then in another sense, it’s also the idea of holding onto all these good things, and it has nothing to do with professional stuff.
Speaking of all the experiences leading up this: What’s been the most surreal moment for you this past year? In terms of that realization of, I dunno, “Man, we’re not just in Gruene anymore”?
I think stepping onstage with Sheryl Crow was probably the most surreal. Because it was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been. And that seemed very real; I mean, it was surreal, but also, “This is fucking happening, man.” You know, you’re onstage, and being asked to sing with a future Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. It was kind of like this crashing moment of leaving my world and entering into a world that I’d seen on TV. You know what I mean?
Yeah. I can see where that might be more of a career leap for you than, say, the first time you sang with Willie Nelson. He was no doubt a bigger influence on you, but he was always …
He was a much bigger influence, and a huge hero of mine. But he’s from my world, you know? He’s close. Whereas, I remember when Sheryl’s The Globe Sessions came out, and it just seemed like another world, like something that was unreachable.
Do you get starstruck in those situations?
Well, that’s probably as close to being starstruck as I get. It’s not about the stardom I guess; for that moment, it was just about the largeness of it. It felt like I was crashing into something. I wasn’t nervous because I was meeting Sheryl Crow.
How do you rate your performance that first time you sang with her?
That’s the other thing man. I feel like, in my head, those are the moments that surprise me and add to my arsenal of personal strength, I guess. It’s doing something that you think you can’t do, and then you jump in and do and you come out the other side unscathed. I don’t know exactly how it was, but I know that I sang on pitch and didn’t forget the words, you know what I mean? It was just one of those things where you go, “All right man, holy shit, here we go …”
She sings with you on “Hold On” on the new record. Do you ever listen back to that and still get a tingle of, “Wow, that’s Sheryl Crow singing on my record. How’d that happen?”
[Laughs] Yeah. It’s funny man. She called me after she sang on it, and she said, “Oh my God, that was great. Thanks for letting me sing on your track, I can’t wait for you to hear it.” And I was like, “Thank you.” We had a 10-minute conversation. And about a half hour later I was sitting on the back of the bus, and it hit me: “Holy shit, Sheryl Crow just called me to say how great my song was that she just got done singing on!” So I actually texted her and said, “Hey Sheryl, I might have forgotten to mention this when we were on the phone a little while ago, but … Sheryl fucking Crow just sang on my record!” I think she got a pretty good kick out of that.
And then half an hour after that, you thought, “Holy shit, I just text-messaged Sheryl freaking Crow!”
Right! The whole thing reminded me of that joke … I don’t know if I’m going to remember how to tell this right, because I heard it a long time ago, but this guy gets shipwrecked with Cindy Crawford. This was back when she was the hottest chick in the world. So, he promises to do something for her if, for one minute, she’ll act like she’s a guy. I guess he promised to do something really girly. So, she agrees, and he says, “Let me call you ‘Dave.’” And Cindy Crawford goes, “OK.” And he goes, “Hey Dave, you’re not going to believe who I’m fucking!”
You’ve been running with a lot of big mainstream country stars lately, too. You toured last year with Brooks & Dunn and, later, Gary Allan. And you’re about to spend several months opening for Brad Paisley. That’s gotta seem kind of surreal sometimes, too. I mean, I know you were never part of the “Nashville sucks!” party here in Texas, but you had to have been conscious of the differences between the Texas scene and Texas artists and the whole Nashville world. Has your exposure to the other side of that fence changed your attitude or opinion about some of those more mainstream acts?
Yeah. But I still think, as a fan, that I have a right to think, “That sucks.” Or, “that’s great,” or whatever. I still reserve that right. I remember times where I’d be with the band, and we’d be dissing somebody, and someone would speak up and say, “Yeah, but he’s nice.” And Bukka Allen, who was playing keyboards with us then, said, “There’s no such thing as ‘nice’ in music. It’s either fucking good, or it’s not!” [Laughs] But with all that being said, after meeting some of these guys … just from my experience, through the success I’ve had this year, you hope it has something to do with your songs and your talent, but a whole lot of it has to do with hard work. And those guys, some of these people who make music that I hate, I know for a fact that they’re working harder than a lot of the people that sit down in Texas and diss on their music. That’s been a sobering thought. I’m not the only guy doing interviews everyday and out on the road for nine months out of the year.
Speaking of dissing artists — I don’t know if you’ve picked up on this yet, but hell hath no fury like 15-year-old, diehard Hinder fans.
I know man.
They’ve really done a number on your iTunes review rating for the “Lips of an Angel” single. And a few of them seem to have found your MySpace page, too. It seems they all think you really suck.
[Laughs] Yeah, I read some of that and decided that reading it was not in my best interest.
I particularly love the one-star reviews where they’ll be like, “This guy totally stole Hinder’s song! He needs to be sued!”
Yeah. I read a few like that. I’ve been lucky in my career in that I haven’t had to experience a whole lot of that before, but now I’m like, “OK, now I know how that feels!” When I first saw it, it was late one night and I figured I’d go on MySpace to answer some mail and questions, and I got like four of those comments. And I was like, “Hmm. Well that stinks.” And if you get close enough to it, it’s like somebody’s pointing a finger in your face, and you start blowing up yourself. That’s what it felt like to me. Like, “No, fuck you.” It feels like they’re right in your face and you’re about to get in a fight. But once I backed up from it, it’s easier to kind of have an idea of where it’s coming from and why it’s coming. On another level, I understand what they’re saying, and I can argue for and against where they’re coming from. They’re just really passionate about their favorite band. Especially the ones that don’t understand the business aspect of it. They’re pissed off because they think I stole that song, but they don’t understand that I’m making that band a whole bunch of fucking money. But I get it, and I put it into perspective for myself so I don’t have to dwell on it. I mean, I’m a big Tim McGraw fan now. But you would not have found anybody who didn’t like “Indian Outlaw” more than me as a 22-year-old kid. I hated it. I thought it was the end to country music. I thought, “Man, that guy should burn!” That’s the way I felt, and that’s the way some of these guys reacting against “Lips of an Angel” feel, too. But, only Tim McGraw knew that that song was the very beginning of his career and the very beginning of the depth of music that he was going to choose to sing. You know?
Have you met the guys in Hinder? I think they’re all about 22, themselves.
I haven’t. I hung out with their road manager one time, but I haven’t met them. And I don’t pretend to be friends with them.
How did you approach that song when you recorded it? “Wherever You Are” and “Love You” were outside songs, too, but “Lips” was obviously very different because it was already a current hit for another act. Did it take you long to find your own handle on it?
The only reason I did the song was because I thought it was a well-written song. So I approached it just like I would any other song I wanted to check out; I took it all the way down to an acoustic guitar and a vocal, words and music, and built it back from that. So it became more “mine” and more of my story that way.
Let’s talk about some of the songs you did write on this record, because I really think those are the standouts here. Starting with “Great Divide.”
It’s basically about driving through West Texas, but it’s also kind of about my family, and about the culture out there. I wrote it while driving out to Abilene to play a gig at a place called the Ponderosa. It was a Friday night, about 7:30 in the evening, and as I was driving west on 20, every station on the FM dial had a high school football game. And I was just laughing because I was going 90 miles an hour because I knew the cops weren’t around because I knew they were at the ball game. The song is a part of a story that just happened — it smelled like West Texas, the cotton and the oil and the cattle. That distinct thing that only happens there. And just having spent some time out there and knowing some of the people out there, I feel like I have an affiliation — I feel like I know it from an objective point of view, because I didn’t grow up there, I just know about it. So I pulled over and wrote the song in roughly 10 minutes.
You’ve got family out West, don’t you?
Yeah. In Midland. My granddad was in the oil business. There’s a line in there, “Some of them get rich/but they’re gamblers still.” That’s what I’ve always loved about those rich oil men from Texas, is that as obnoxious as they can be, they all know the game, man. They’re all just gamblers, they’re all just one step away from the poor house. So from my perspective, the difference between the guy working on the oil derrick and the guy running the oil derrick has always seemed to be pretty small. Except for the checkbook. But most of those guys, they’ve all come in and out of debt, they’ve come in and out of bankruptcy, and they’re all out there just trying to hit it big.
My other personal favorite is “All I Can Do.” Which is pretty much another one of your songs addressing your own struggle to hit it big, isn’t it?
Right. That was more of a response to just some of the crazy, half-assed circumstances I was in before this record deal came about. Some of the music business stuff, where you kind of put your faith in that if you do the work, and you have faith that if other people are as involved with their work as you are with yours, that you all can find some common ground and get some things done. And at the end of the day, if somebody doesn’t give a shit about you, they’re not going to care about you. There’s no amount of good deeds that you can do to get the faith of somebody else if they just don’t see it. And after 10 years of really trying to get the attention of some people that I thought were really interested in me and my career … that song is kind of a response to that. Like, “Wow. That’s all I can do, man.”
“Easy as 1,2,3” kind of hints at the same theme, but in a much more upbeat kind of way. You wrote that one with Todd Snider. He’s been dropping your name a lot lately. He’s got that whole verse about you in his song “Nashville,” off of East Nashville Skyline. And I heard him on KUT-FM the other day, doing a live version of “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” where he changed the last line to: “I think I’ll move back down to Austin/help Jack Ingram lug his shit around.” And then tried to cover up for saying “shit” on the radio by saying, “Hit! I meant, ‘Help Jack Ingram lug his big No. 1 hit around!’”
[Laughs] That’s funny, man.
How long have you two known each other?
Since ’96. We met 11 years ago. He has the same booking agent as I did at the time. He was the first tour that we went out opening for; he was just playing little roadside dives, but they all weren’t in Texas. We went out and opened for him basically that whole year. And we hit it off right away. One conversation and we realized we had all the same records growing up. I still consider him one of my best friends in the business. He’s one of those guys who, we talk every … even if it’s been six months, we just pick up right where we left off.
Just a couple of last things. “Love You” is up for some kind of CMT Video Award. That’s a first for you, isn’t it?
It seems to be a fan-voted affair. Do you check in on that, to see how it’s fairing in the polls?
No, I don’t. I didn’t even know it was nominated for a while. Not because I don’t care. I do care. I just … I try to keep that stuff … I guess we’ll see how I do on either of these fronts, but I try to keep it as far apart from my psyche as I do the negative comments from 15-year-old Hinder fans. Because at the end of the day, none of those things are going to count.
I actually only asked about the CMT thing so I could sneak this other awards show question. I gotta put you on the spot here: Since you’re in the middle of this transition from Texas sensation to mainstream country star, what did you think of the Dixie Chicks’ sweep at the Grammys? I was thrilled, but I know there were, um, “a few” folks on the mainstream country side of the industry — not to mention lots of conservatives, period — who saw that and thought, “What the hell?” They assume it was all politics, and had nothing to do with the music.
Right. The liberal media conspiracy. And I do partly agree with that, in the sense that it’s people who have the right to vote. It’s the same argument circling around and around and around. Like, “Hey man, you had the right to ban them from your radio stations, you had the right to smash their records, and I have the right to vote for them for best record of the year, because I think it is.” I’m a huge fan of that record. I remember when I got it, we all talked about it — that’s a great record. So I’m proud for them, and I know they feel justified in some respect. But I do feel — not in the same fervor and spirit as everyone else, but I do sometimes wish she [Natalie Maines] would just fucking shut up. [Laughs] Not because I don’t like her politics, but just shut up, would ya? And I would say that to her. Because I just think that she’s so talented, and they make such great records, but … you know, I actually had a chance to watch that movie [Shut Up and Sing] the other day, and she said something that I’ve thought the whole time. She said, “God, they would not be making such a big stink over this if they knew me! Why do they care what I have to say?” [Laughs]
Finally … I hate to end on a bum note, but I hear your lead guitarist, Chris Masterson, is jumping ship for a gig with Jay Farrar’s Son Volt. Is that something you saw coming for a while?
No. He told me about that the first week of February, I guess. But I had a feeling before that that something might be up. It was one of those deals where you’re in a relationship, and nothing is said, but I just thought, “I wonder if something’s about to happen.” That was in January.
What tipped you off? Was it when he started calling you “Jay”?
[Laughs] Yeah! Little tiny clues. Son Volt playing from his bunk, stuff like that. I’m certainly not … I don’t have the attitude of, “I’ve seen ’em come and I’ve seen ’em go.” But I have had guitar players that I really wanted to play with and liked playing with leave before. And the world keeps turning and the train keeps going.
Whatever new guy you pick this time isn’t going to have a lot of time to ease into the gig though, is he? He’s gonna make his debut in front of the biggest crowds you’ve ever played to.
That’s the only part that I’m a little anxious about. You don’t have time to go burn it down jam-style in some roadside honky-tonk and get your bearings. So we’re going to have to figure that out; we’re probably going to have to do more rehearsals than we’ve done before to compensate for that. But, I’m positive it’s going to work out. I know it will. I know I’m going to find the right guy, because I feel like I have a pretty good sense of where we’re headed.
Specifically, a really long tour with Brad Paisley, which kicks off April 26. I understand the tour’s being sponsored by Hershey’s. Sweet!
Yeah. Hopefully my wife will enjoy that, too. I’ve already thought about that one a lot. What’s their catering going to look like? Big bowls of chocolate and fountains of chocolate!