By Richard Skanse
Hard as it is to believe nowadays, this thing we call “Texas music” wasn’t always a young man’s game. Sure, college kids in the Lone Star State have long flocked to Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie shows, and veterans like Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett were all new kids on the honky-tonk block once upon a time, playing for tips in the front of Gruene Hall. But Jack Ingram was one of the first — if not the first — of his generation to really get this current Texas country boom off and running. Ask Pat Green who it was that really inspired him to seriously think about writing and performing his own tunes when he was in college, and he points not to Keen, Walker or Willie, but Ingram — a guy his own age who was already putting out his own albums and establishing a formidable name for himself on the Texas dancehall scene. The rest is history in the making, and Ingram is still leading the charge a decade down the line.
But despite Ingram’s pioneering role in the current Texas music uprising, the Houston-born, Dallas-based singer-songwriter isn’t about to be confined or defined by the movement he helped kick into gear. Apart from Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Dallas,” which Ingram covered on his Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy-produced 1997 album Livin’ or Dyin’, you won’t find him singing much about Texas. And you won’t hear him joining the chorus of “Nashville sucks!” popular amongst other Lone Star young guns. His new album, Electric — his second outing for Sony’s Lucky Dog imprint (following 1999’s Hey You) and sixth release to date — packs plenty of honky-tonk heat, but true to its title, it also rocks like a bastard and is filled with enough catchy-as-hell melodic pop hooks (particularly the standout track “One Thing”) to fill a Tom Petty album. Electric is proof that even when you color outside the lines, you can make kick-ass Texas music without explicitly calling it that, and you can make it anywhere and for any label you damn-well-please so long as you keep your songs true to your heart. Even more impressive, it’s also proof that when your Nashville label tells you, “We don’t hear a single” and sends you back to the drawing board, you can play the game and still come out with your soul intact.
Calling from his home in Dallas, Ingram sheds some light on how it’s done, how it all got started and where it’s going.
Let’s start of with the obvious: Why Dallas? How long have you been there?
Too long, brother.
Have you lived there ever since your SMU days?
Yeah. Well, I moved down to San Antonio for about two years. And I really enjoyed that. But when I got married my wife got a job up here, so we moved back up. And I’ve been here every since. We’re always toying with the idea of when we’re going to leave, but it’s not a bad place to tour from — it’s pretty central to the rest of the country, and it’s easy to get out of.
Thanks in no small part to a certain song of the same name, Dallas sometimes gets a bad rep sometimes. From your experience, what does the Big D have going for it that goes under-recognized?
I think people have Dallas pretty well pegged. [Laughs] I gotta be honest, a lot of what they say about it is true. When you get down to other cities, it seems a little bit more relaxed. But the thing that’s cool about it is that it’s always been kind of an uptown getaway for people from West Texas and other small places around here. It has always been kind of an exciting weekend town, as far as things like taking your wife out for a nice dinner. That is one thing that I’ve enjoyed about it.
Well sure it’s great when you’re up, but Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you’re down…
[Laughs] Yeah, man. I mean, that song … that’s why that song has lasted so long. It’s the truth. It’s not the devil, but sometimes it can be awfully close. But it can also be a lot of fun.
Speaking of ups and downs, Electric worked to be hell of an album, but making it was somewhat of a long, drawn out process for you, wasn’t it? What took so long?
Yeah, this has been the most involved record as far as time being taken to do it and as far as some record company clichés along the way. Part of the time thing came from me touring Hey You so heavily. I mean, we toured that record non-stop until Christmas of last year. And then it was time to make a new record, so we started recording it in last June, and we turned it in, and at that point was when it started to get a little tedious. Which is fine — that’s what happens when you’re on a record label. If I wanted to just turn in records and say, “This is my art,” and be an artiste about it, I wouldn’t have signed with a major label. So when you turn in a record and they come back and say, “We really love it, but …,” that’s part of the price you pay for being on a major. And at that point, I felt like it was up to me to kind of take that criticism — first of all, take it like a man, and second of all, take it with a grain of salt for what it’s worth. You know?
So did you get the classic “We don’t hear a single yet” line?
Oh yeah. Of course! It was like, Cliché Rule 3-1A in the rulebook of record company statements. [Laughs]
So what were some of the songs you took back to them after that?
I cut three new songs, but only one of them’s on the record — “Won’t Go With Her.” The only other thing I did to the record was we tried out a couple of different remixes, and we only ended up using one of them, on the song “Fool.” So I mean, that’s what I mean when I say take it for what it’s worth with a grain of salt being part of the deal. I didn’t panic when they told me that, and it didn’t make me mad. This is what happens. They didn’t bother me when I was making the record, so it’s kind of like it’s my part of the bargain to be ready for them to say, “Hey man, how are we going to sell this?” And I understand that. The music business is tough. And then it’s also my job to not panic and maybe change a few things, maybe go record some new stuff, but keep it on the same integrity level that I do everything. How high that bar is, that’s the part that’s up to everyone else’s opinion. But the line of integrity is mine.
Did you go through this whole process with the last album, too?
No, I didn’t. And that’s part of my reaction to this as well. There’s that thing where it’s like, are you better off with them asking you to change a few things about your record, or are you better off with them just putting it out? With Hey You, it was pretty much up to us to get things going on it. There was not a lot of promotion. And three years ago there wasn’t the kind of record sales like you have now — there wasn’t as much of a microscope on records that come out. So it’s just a matter of timing I think. Record companies have a reason to be interested in this stuff now.
What song set the mood for this album? Was there any one song that really got you excited for it?
“One Thing” was kind of the song that helped me realize I was ready to make a record. I try to write songs … I don’t try and carve out time to go and write. I kind of write them on the road here and there, whenever inspiration hits me and I have the time. But when I wrote “One Thing,” that’s the one that made me go, “Man, I might be getting close to something here.”
What made “One Thing” stand out?
It’s not that melody isn’t a major part of the process when I write, but normally I’m much more focused on the lyric. But “One Thing” was a little bit backwards for me, in that I was trying to put a lyric to a melody. Which was great to be able to do. Jim Lauderdale’s a perfect example of a guy where it seems like melodies just come out of his mouth. He makes it look easy, and that’s the first time I ever really thought about melody first.
“What Makes You Say,” which you co-wrote with Bruce Robison, is the real standout for me. How much writing have you done with Bruce?
We both put “Anymore Good Loving” on our last records, and we wrote that together. We’ve written about four or five songs. “What Makes You Say” was an interesting thing, in that it was the first time that I’d ever had an idea and worked on it until I finally just said uncle, and actually thought about who, out of the people that I write with, could understand what I’m talking about the best? And sure enough, I took it to Bruce and he did his thing on it, which he does well.
What was his “thing”?
Well, aside from some words, it seems like he has a sensibility with that type of song. I’m just not that gentle of a songwriter. That’s why it was hard for me to finish that song, and he just has a way of handling those kinds of tunes with such grace.
How far back do you and the Robison brothers go?
I remember hearing “Angry All the Time” on KNON back in ’95 I think. Right when he put that first record out. And it was at that point that we started seeing each other at different shows. And then Charlie started opening shows for me after Livin’ or Dyin’, so ’97 or 98. He was just out playing with his bass player, Lunchmeat. They came out for like six months to a year opening shows for me.
Is it true that you had wanted to record the song “I Want You Bad,” and had been performing it live long before he cut it for his Step Right Up album and made it a single? Rumor was that caused something of a rift between you two.
No, there was certainly never a rift. We’re too good of friends to go through that kind of shit. But I had actually recorded that song to put on that Unleashed record that we were all on. And I had planned on recording it, so I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t planned on doing something with that song. But man, when he did it, it’s kind of one of those things where it’s like, “Hell, you’re making a record right now, go for it. If anybody does well with it, especially out of my family of friends that I’ve been with out here in the clubs banging our heads against the wall, man, go for it.” I think there’s enough good songs to go around.
I interviewed Pat Green a couple of months ago, and it struck me how everyone links him to carrying on the tradition of Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen, but he says it was you who inspired him to pick up a guitar and start writing himself. Because you were about the same age, and showed that it could be done.
I’ve been told that from a few people, some other artists. And that’s nice to hear. But all I’ve been trying to do this whole time is just write a good song. So obviously along the way if that catches somebody else who’s then inspired to go do it, then I made some kind of an impact. What they do with that is their own business.
Well, who was your model? There’s a lot of guys that came behind you, but when you started out, there really wasn’t a lot of competition out there, was there?
No, I don’t think there was.
So what inspired you as a student at SMU to go and do this?
When I started learning to play guitar, I had a Willie Nelson songbook, and I learned a few songs in there. Then somebody along the way told me the idea about there really only being a few songs in rock ’n’ roll — how when you learn a few songs, you realize they’re all using similar chords and progressions. So I started deciding that I just wanted to write a song instead of the ones I was playing. That was really the inspiration for me. I mean, I had been going to see Ray Wylie Hubbard and Shake Russell and people like that in clubs since I was 17 or so. That’s one of those things that happens down here in Texas — you realize that you don’t have to be a superstar to go out and play music and make a living at it. And you don’t have to be a cover band. You see these people filling up these small little clubs and making a little money, and they’re not playing “Mustang Sally.” So that idea was planted in my head just because of where I grew up. It wasn’t like any direct inspiration at the time made me go “Wow, I can do this too,” it was just like, “Well, I learned a couple of these songs everybody’s writing, it’s not that hard to pick out a couple of tunes on the guitar, so I’ll start writing my own and go see if anybody cares.”
So how long was it before people did care?
It wasn’t until I had a batch of songs and went in and made a very glorified demo, which turned out to be my first record. I knew that what I was doing was tough to put across to people unless they knew who you were and had time to sit with the record. To play in a honky-tonk or some of these bars, and play the kind of songs I was writing, it was hard to get across, hard to get people to quit talking, because I wasn’t playing little folk houses. So I was hoping, and I was proved right I guess, that if I made something that people could take home and listen to, get a chance to know, that that was how I was going to see if people liked what I had to say, or if it touched them in some way. And it was right after that that I started getting people coming up at gigs to buy records from me — people who had gotten it from a friend of a friend.
Do you ever feel like the grizzled veteran? Like, “Back in my day, you had to bust your ass to get these college kids out to the honky-tonks!”
[Laughs] Man, no, actually. I gotta be honest, I really don’t ever feel that way. I mean, I have been busting my ass for a long time, but I think it wasn’t until my last couple of records that I’ve really figured out what I’m doing and how to do it. So I’m not tired or grizzled or anything. I mean, fuck, I’m only 31. I feel like it’s all ahead of me.
Waylon Jennings had that song, “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand.” You ever feel that way about the current “Texas Music Revolution” scene?
I don’t think any of these people we’re talking about have sold the kind records and had the kind of impact that comes anywhere close to what happened with the Outlaw movement. I mean, those guys were selling millions of records, and I don’t think anybody’s come close to that out of this little scene. And that goes along with “Do I feel like a grizzled veteran?” I don’t feel like we’ve done much yet. I’m glad that Pat Green and those guys are doing well. And I’m glad that Charlie’s kicking ass. I think he’s talented as shit — and the same thing goes for Younger, Friendly Brother. [Laughs] But you know man, I just feel like this thing’s just beginning.
I guess it’s easy when you’re in Texas to fall under the impression that this movement is huge, forgetting the bigger picture.
Yeah, I mean, you’re talking to a guy who’s been out on the road for the last three records I’ve made. I play in Wisconsin. And this movement down here is really big because a couple hundred people in Wisconsin know who we are without ever hearing us on the radio. To me, that’s great — that’s nothing to scoff at. But until we’re selling out amphitheaters in the middle of Nebraska, I’m not sure that this deserves to be called the same as the Outlaws. At least in terms of, “Do you think it’s gotten out of hand?” I think it’s a cool movement and I’m proud to be part of it, but I think there’s a bigger parade going on somewhere and we need to keep that in the back of our mind when we talk about what’s going on down here.
What’s your take on the whole anti-Nashville attitude? Saying “Nashville Sucks” just doesn’t seem to be your deal.
No. I just don’t believe in that. I’m not saying that I love all the stuff that comes out of Nashville, but … Steve Earle makes his records in Nashville. I think that the stuff that you put on your record and go out and tour with, it’s up to the artist to make those decisions. I’ve been in those studios, and the ultimate decisions, it’s somebody looking at an artist going, “Well, what do you think?” So you can judge the music however you want, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the town. That’s just a place that has a lot of studios and a lot of places to make music. Of course, there are a lot of decisions made in that town about what’s going to be promoted and what they’re going to spend money on, but those decisions get made anywhere where there’s a record company.
What did you learn from working with Steve Earle while making Livin’ or Dyin’?
It wasn’t any advice that he gave me, just so much as it was an emotional kind of confidence about my music. Once I got finished making the record with him, I didn’t judge myself so harshly by a yardstick of any other musician or any of the great songwriters. After that period I just felt like, “This is what I do, and people can either love it or hate it, and I’m still going to be doing it.” That’s why I named that record Livin’ or Dyin’. That’s kind of what I took from that whole session.
What did you take away from the sessions for Electric?
I don’t know what I took away from it yet. It’s called Electric because that’s the way the music feels to me. And it’s subjective, but I looked at my record and felt that it was electric, intense and powerful to me. Just what the word “electric” conjures up. It feels alive.