By Richard Skanse
It really hasn’t been that long since Jack Ingram released his last full-length studio album, 2002’s Electric. But it sure feels like it — in part because so many of his peers on the Texas country/festival scene have been so damn prolific over the last five years, what with three studio albums each from Robert Earl Keen, Pat Green and Cross Canadian Ragweed, and not even Willie knows how many from Willie Nelson. It also feels like such a long time since Ingram put out a studio set because Electric was so damn good it whetted the appetite for more — and that five-track Extra Volts EP just didn’t cut it.
But probably the biggest reason that it seems Ingram is long overdue for a new record is because the last four years have likely been the busiest of his career. Scratch that — the busiest, no doubt, of his life. Since Electric, Ingram and his wife have had two kids (with a third on the way). He’s recorded three live albums, launched his own radio show ( Jack Ingram’s Real. American. Music. Hour., originally on Dallas/Fort Worth’s 99.5-FM “The Wolf” and now on XM Satellite Radio’s X Country Station) and started the similarly themed “Jack Ingram’s Real. American. Music. Festival,” which after three short years stands out as one of the best in Texas (it’s held in September at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, outside of San Antonio). He also found time to star in the video for the CMA Award’s “Single of the Year,” fellow Texan Lee Ann Womack’s “I May Hate Myself in the Morning.” It’s just hard to believe that same productivity hasn’t resulted in him knocking out a slew of new studio albums to boot at a Ryan Adams-pace.
Well, the wait is over. Almost. Though he most certainly never went away, 2006 is going to be the year Ingram comes “back” with a vengeance. After a few years back in the independent trenches following his parting with his previous major-label, Sony Lucky Dog, Ingram kicks off the new year as one of the flagship artists on Nashville’s new Big Machine Records, a not-so-little indie co-founded by former DreamWorks/Universal Music Group bigwig Scott Borchetta and Toby Keith (yes, that Toby Keith). His first single on Big Machine, “Wherever You Are,” was released in the fall and has already proven to be the most successful of his career on the national level. Then, in November, he was one of the country music mavericks featured in CMT’s Outlaws special, holding his own alongside Billy Joe Shaver, Merle Haggard, David Allan Coe, Shelby Lynne and Keith. All this sets the stage very nicely for the Jan. 10 release of his new record and Big Machine debut, Live — Wherever You Are. Yes, it’s another live album; in fact, it’s a re-release of his 2004 Happy Happy … Live at Gruene Hall disc, spruced up with three new songs — a pair of studio cuts (including “Wherever You Are”) and an anthem called “You Never Knocked Me Down” culled from the Outlaws taping. But don’t think for a minute that Ingram’s spinning his wheels, because all of this so far is just a teaser trailer of what’s to come. Ingram’s got a full-length studio album in the can and ready to launch before the end of the year. When that record drops, things are going to get really busy for Jack. And as we found out when we caught up with Ingram in December, he’s ready for it.
You’ve been a very busy boy of late, and it doesn’t look like things are going to let up any time soon. Has anything or everything that’s happened in your career over the last couple of years — and all the stuff right ahead of you — caught you off guard, or have you been able to take it all in stride?
I’m definitely taking it in stride. Only because everything that’s happening right now is stuff that I’ve been working on for a few years. I mean, to get the right label situation took a lot of searching. And to get the XM Radio gig took a lot of Sunday nights doing it at the Wolf, trying to figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. You know what I mean? But for the first time in my career, I realized that the prep work involved was making something bigger than what was going on actually happen.
So you’ve had time to prepare for all of this.
Yeah. I mean, it’s been busy for a long time. It’s just now that some of the stuff is paying off publicly. That’s part of the deal — I figured out a few years ago that if I’m going to be working my ass off to be selling 10,000 records, I’m going to be working my ass off if I sell a whole lot more, too. So I started trying to figure out the steps that I needed to take to sell more records. I guess, for lack of a better word, to have things pay off. Because existing is hard enough; it seems like it takes just as much work just to get by as it does to succeed.
I take it a lot of the work involved in selling “a lot more” records gets done in Nashville.
Yeah. I’ve been flying Southwest like crazy. Being in Nashville really doesn’t have anything to do with the music, as far as a need to be there or a need not to be there. But I can see where it would be easier living there, because there’s business stuff to do there all the time. Basically, I get off the plane there and go to work for a couple of days of non-stop talking about myself: dog and pony shows, grip and grins and all that stuff. Then I get back on the plane and go back home. And that works for now, because I just know that the business part of it would consume me if I lived there and had access to it all the time, and I just don’t want to change my perspective in that sense.
When you’re out doing those “dog and pony shows,” promoting yourself at radio stations and such, are you able to kind of step into character and play that role without feeling weird about it? I mean, does that come naturally to you when you need to do those things?
Man, I think what I do best in those situations is I act myself. I mean, I certainly might change a few of my answers in a way that’s … sometimes I feel like I’m talking to a relative that doesn’t understand the music business. You know what I mean? Like if you’re talking to your grandma or an aunt, and they start asking you some questions about it — if you told them the absolute real answer, they’d just look at you like, “What?” So you just kind of give them a broad stroke and move on about your day. I don’t feel like I’m changing myself or being duplicitous or anything, but sometimes when an absolute mainstream country publication asks me something, they don’t really want a real answer from me, and they’re not going to listen if I tell them. So I just kind of say, “Yeah, you bet, love that, whatever,” and I move on. So yeah, I guess I adapt, because I don’t feel like I have to tell them everything about myself sometimes.
But you don’t think the act of adapting that way has changed you, necessarily?
I don’t think so. Because I think if this does work, part of the appeal of what I’m giving those people is something that’s real. Which I don’t think they get very often. That’s my deal – being honest and real. So if I start changing it, I’m no good to them. And I’m certainly no good to me.
A couple of years ago, you recorded a track on an album called 13 Ways to Live, which featured artists like Terry Allen, Patty Griffin, Alejandro Escovedo, Butch Hancock and other notable Texas-based songwriters doing songs in response to the war in Iraq. Seeing as how none of those songs or artists seemed quite in line with the whole of “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” mentality, I gotta ask — how did you end up in Toby Keith’s camp? Is that as odd a pairing to you as it might look on paper to some people?
[Laughs] Well, you know, he’s pretty straight-up, man. He’s pretty straightforward. It’s definitely not as odd as it may seem. The thing is, I’ve spent a lot of years, even when I was on Lucky Dog … in my delusional mind, I thought Lucky Dog had a chance to do something really special. I thought, “If Charlie and Bruce Robison and I put out really great music, they can’t help but give us the attention we deserve.” I thought that without knowing that that wasn’t even close to an option, that it wasn’t even anybody’s idea for that label. I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve been trying to be put in a situation where I could be presented to a mainstream country audience for a long time. I just haven’t been real good at it. And people that dig straight-up stuff, people that dig honesty in their music — those guys like Toby Keith. Whether or not you agree with his politics, or whether or not you agree with his arguments with other artists — that has nothing to do with me, and I could give a shit. I could care less about that. I know that the people who like Toby Keith, who like hardcore, straight-up country music will have an opportunity to hear me, and will probably like me. Because I’m honest, and there’s not much hidden meaning in my songs; it’s like, here’s what I’m doing, here’s how I’m feeling, take it or leave it. So, all that stuff in Texas with Toby Keith and the Chicks and Charlie or whatever, all his grandstanding … the thing is, Toby’s a hardcore Democrat! Nobody knows that, because that’s not his image. But all that stuff, that’s his world. What he’s providing me is a platform for me to do my thing.
So how did you end up on his radar in the first place?
What happened is that Scott Borchetta was the guy who was head of his promotion at DreamWorks. Then there was the merger [with Universal Music Group], and Borchetta and Toby went from DreamWorks over to Mercury. Borchetta was then put in charge of Mercury, MCA and one of those other labels; he was basically head of UMG promotion. Which didn’t work out very well, because he and Toby had a bad ass thing going on at DreamWorks, and all of a sudden they were lumped in with all these other artists and companies, and Borchetta had to take care of all of them. That didn’t work out at all, and he had a falling out with Universal and got fired. But he’s also the guy who was very integral in selling 20 million records on Toby, so Scott decided, “Well, fuck it, I’ll do my own thing.”
Anyway, I was talking to Scott already, because I was talking to Universal. And then Scott got blown out of his job there and came to me to me and said, “Hey man, if you want to be a little patient, I’m going to start my own label.” Obviously I was in the mood to be very patient. ‘I’m going to start my own label.’ And then a few months after that, Toby got out of his deal and joined up with Scott. And that’s when I started talking to Toby and saying, “Hey man, let’s figure this out.”
You’ve done this before — going from being an independent artist to a major label. Is it hard to learn to step back a little and let somebody else take the wheel in certain areas of your career?
Yeah. But I think people make the music business a little bit too complex. There’s a lot of things going on, but basically, you’re making records and trying to sell them. And I know all the elements well enough that I can take a step back and know if people are putting the effort in that I would put in, or the effort that’s needed. Like with radio — Scott Borchetta at the label is, from all accounts, he’s the best in the business at radio. So I don’t feel like I have to put much input in there. I’m fine with letting them do that. What I try to focus on — what I didn’t focus on the first time — was, you know, I thought, “OK, here we go, we’re going to get some hits and have millions of people who want our records.” And I forgot to keep my mailing list in line and I forgot to do the things that I’ve done to get an audience without major support. I think that’s the difference, is now I still treat my career — the part of my career that I can actually mold and shape and touch — I still treat it the same. I sign every autograph after each show, I make sure that we get as many mailing list names as we can at every show, all the day-to-day things of upkeep and making sure that your audience knows where you are and what you’re doing. That’s what I control. My job is to take care of my touring career, take care of my audience, do all the interviews and go and do all the radio stations.
The thing about country radio is — all these guys from the Texas scene, myself included, would sit there and bitch: “Those guys won’t play us. Those guys won’t listen to us. Those guys don’t notice us.” And there’s an element of truth to that, but there’s also an element of, we haven’t done the work required to make those people care about us. People bitching about how “radio doesn’t play us or care about us,” have they gone and visited every single country station across the nation and told them who they are and what they’re doing, and given them product that fits into their system? There’s a lot of work to it. And I just got sick of bitching about it. I went, “I’m not going to spend the next 20 years bitching about the fact that I never got a shot at radio.”
Well, judging from the success of “Wherever You Are,” you’re getting that shot at radio now. What’s the strategy from here on out? I mean, when are you going to follow this live album up with a new studio record?
The studio record is basically done. The reason we put the live album out first is … from the label’s point of view, they love the fact that I have an audience down here in Texas That’s probably the major reason that I got signed, that there is something there that they can build on — the launching pad, so to speak. But also, from their point of view, they needed a way to introduce me, or reintroduce me, to their format. So the idea is to give that audience the best of what I’ve got, and it happened to be that I had all my greatest hits — for lack of a better word — on this live album, and owned all the recordings myself. So we took that and added the two new studio songs that the label can give to radio as singles. The idea is to put this out, do as much as we can with the singles, and then immediately come out with, as if there wasn’t even a break, something new. The third single on Big Machine will be the first single off the next record. When that record comes out will depend on the ride of the singles off of this one, but the studio record will be out in ’06, I know that.
Both of the studio cuts/singles on the live album were written by other writers. Since you come from a scene that puts so much stock in the singer-songwriter ideal, is that hard for you? I mean, I know you’ve recorded other people’s songs before, but is it ever something you’re reluctant to do?
I’ve always known that I would cut outside songs. I’ve always had a list — especially with iTunes these days, I’ll go through my music collection and make a playlist of songs that I’d cut. Like, fuck it — if you like it and it’s good, nobody’s going to take away my songwriting credibility, if there is any. I mean, Willie Nelson’s first hit, he didn’t write. So I’ve taken a few cues from that.
After the initial success of the “Wherever You Are” single, and the exposure you got from being on that CMT Outlaws special, have you seen a definite impact on your catalog sales?
What I’ve seen is a definite impact on my Internet sales and my Internet traffic. You know, we have a little Web stat deal, and immediately after that Outlaws thing aired, we were averaging about 300-350 a day, and it doubled immediately, and has kept up that way. With as limited success as the single’s already had, at gigs I can just tell that there’s new faces, and there’s people that are getting it and getting on board. And the people that have been there seem to be really excited, too. It’s a lot of fun, let’s put it that way.
What kind of touring opportunities do you have on the horizon? Are there plans yet to go out on the road with any heavy-hitters?
Not yet. I know Toby’s going out, and I’m on his label, so the exposure of those artists might make sense to him. But with a record coming out and another one on the way, I know I’m going to be really busy. So I’ll either be touring on my own and continuing to be building my own fanbase the old fashioned way, or if something comes up … I mean, I’d love to go tour with Gary Allan or Keith Urban or Toby, whoever. Whoever’s doing those kind of numbers, man! Because I know that even if it doesn’t exactly match up musically, if I get up there in front of people and do my thing, I’m going to grab some of them. I mean, I could go open for Barbra Streisand and still feel confident! Because people at a Barbra Streisand show, they have two tickets each: one of them really wanted to go, and the other one might be a huge Steve Earle fan. You know what I mean? You just never know. So you just get in front of as many people as you can and do what you do and see what happens. That’s kind of my attitude right now.
Speaking of getting in front of as many people as possible, your show on XM Satellite Radio is reaching people all over the world. For anyone who’s never heard it, can you explain exactly what it is you do on Jack Ingram’s Real. American. Music. Hour.?
It’s basically the same thing that the festival is built around. It’s an hour of me kind of going, “Hey man, check this out.” Telling stories as to how each song relates to me, either personally or as a fan. Like if I play some Bruce Robinson song that I know he wrote in the motel room next to mine while we were out on tour, I might tell a story about what we did that night. I just try to be a tiny bit insightful as to how some of these songs are done. Or when I play Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones or Bright Eyes, I just tell why I dig it or where I heard it and why I think it’s cool.
Sounds like you don’t restrict yourself to genre.
Absolutely not. It’s like, the whole idea was that the show would be based around music that I buy. My collection. Back when I was doing it at the Wolf and still took phone calls from listeners, it was hilarious, because I’d be playing Paul Westerberg or something, and some Alan Jackson fan would call and just be irate, going, “I thought this was a country station! I’m turning it!”
Lastly … you recently moved to Austin after living in Dallas for, as you put it the last time you talked with LoneStarMusic.com, “Too damn long, brother.” What finally prompted you to leave the Big D and drive south?
Well, my wife’s sister lives in Austin, and we needed a little family support because we’ve got three kids — my daughter’s 3, my son’s 18 months and we’ve got one on the way. It’s insane! And because I’m on the road so much, we just needed some help on that end. Plus, I really don’t want to move to Nashville, and I’m not going to move to New York or L.A., so if you’re in the music business and you live in Texas, well … Austin just kind of makes sense. I’d been wanting to move here forever.
Did you work out some kind of exchange program with Pat Green when he left Austin for Fort Worth?
[Laughs] Yeah. I just kind of figured that D/FW wasn’t big enough for both of us!