Whatever He Is

"I thought, if I can get really good, all the other stuff will fall into place," Jack Ingram says. "And it didn't."

Not that long ago, Jack Ingram was an SMU college kid with a guitar, a major Robert Earl Keen jones and a Tuesday night gig every week at Adair's. Starting there in the early '90s, he drew the blueprint for countless other collegiate types to follow in his wake and spark the current Texas music movement, winning multiple Dallas Observer Music Awards along the way and proving himself on 2002's Electric to be a formidable songwriter to boot.

But that was only the beginning for Ingram. His first chart hit, "Wherever You Are," has just cracked the Top 20 and looks likely to hit Top 10. While "fuck Nashville" remains an all-too-common gripe on the Texas circuit, Ingram--who has already won and lost two Nashville record deals and would have every reason to gripe--is now swinging for the fence of country stardom.

"My only thought is, why not?" says Ingram, who's been on a promo tour the last five months and calls from an arena in Minneapolis, where he's meeting Nashville superstar Toby Keith to write songs together. "If those guys can have Top 10 hits, why not me? And if that guy's selling out American Airlines Center, I'm not going to sell myself short."


Jack Ingram performs at Fair Park's State Fair Grounds on Saturday, February 25, with Cross Canadian Ragweed, Reckless Kelly and more.

But is he also selling his soul to get to the top? That's not the way Ingram sees it. "At some point I realized that it takes a lot of work to make a living at making music. And a little more work to not be bitching about what you didn't get. I'm putting in the work, and I'm putting in the miles, and I'm putting in the hours anyway. And so much energy in our world is spent going, 'They don't understand us. They don't get it.' Let's go fuckin' make them get it."

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To do so, Ingram has committed what some call the cardinal sin for singer-songwriters--covering songs written by others. But he thinks it's just giving the Nashville system something it can work with. "It's fun to preach to the choir. But man, come on!" Ingram says. "I respect my music, and I respect the music of this scene more than just to stay down here in Texas and shoot a finger at the world. And this stuff can be raised to another level."

Longtime Ingram followers might find his latest plan awkward: adding two new studio songs written by others and a track from his CMT "Outlaws" appearance last year to the Live at Gruene Hall album he'd been selling at his gigs and on his Web site. Voilà--it's Live--Wherever You Are, his fourth major label release for his third Nashville record company. But unlike Rising Tide Records, which was folded into MCA not long after Ingram's Steve Earle-produced Livin' Or Dyin' came out in 1997, or Sony's Lucky Dog farm team imprint that dumped Ingram soon after Electric was released, his new label, the aptly-named Big Machine Records--a Universal Music label run by Scott Borchetta, one of Music City's top radio promoters--is primed to take Ingram to the top.

So rather than spend months making a new album that was aimed at radio, Ingram and Big Machine were ready to hit the ground running. "I knew I was going to take some heat for this, but I think it's for the greater good," he says of Live--Wherever You Are's stitch job of live and studio tracks.

And for Ingram, it all makes sense. "I've had a lot more success at selling tickets than records. And that live record is good. So I thought, what's our goal here? We want to introduce me to mainstream radio. I have this album here that's good, full of songs that, for what it's worth, is basically a greatest hits record. OK. Let's just go and get two songs that we think are solid songs that we think will work at radio. Put them on a live record full of good songs that will showcase why I've even got a record deal in the first place, because people are betting on the fact that I've made this connection with a large audience without any radio airplay."

Ingram believes he's already shown his mettle as a writer. So why not prove he can also be a star? And with his movie-star-next-door good looks and firm determination, he plans on getting to the top. "I finally realized with Electric that, as an artist, I don't have to get better at that part," he says. "All the reviews and acceptance of critics and other artists--for lack of a better term, street cred--came then. And I thought, if I can get really good at this shit, all the other stuff will fall into place. And it didn't. It's like I was trying to get into heaven by deeds--it'll be so good that they can't deny the fact that it will sell a million records. But that's like lightning in a bottle when that happens." And it didn't happen.

Rather than return to Texas with a Nashville chip on his shoulder, Ingram regrouped and passed on some record deal offers until the right one came along. "I never got frustrated with them," he says of Music City, adding, "I did get frustrated. But every time I've wanted to say 'fuck Nashville,' I've realized that it's only because I'm scared. I guess I finally matured or whatever and just looked at the examples of people that did make it in the kind of way that I know my music can make it, because I like commercial music."

The metroplex--where Ingram lived for most of the last 17 years since he came from the Houston area to attend college--always thought he could make it, too, and Ingram points to support from major and indie country stations alike, including 95.3 The Range and Fort Worth's 95.9 The Ranch. But as of last July, Ingram's home base is now in Austin, mainly so that he and his wife, Amy, who have two kids and a third on the way, could live closer to her sister and her family. "They have kids, and we have kids," he says. "And with me being away so much, we really needed to be around blood."

Ingram vows to not fall prey to the "Happy Happy (Country Country)" syndrome that he jibes on his live Gruene recording. And even though he didn't write "Wherever You Are," the hit boasts a common Ingram theme of striving hard to make love work. "It covers ground that I cover but in a way that I would have never gone. The demo reminded me of a Del Amitri track--cool roots pop.

"I'm not intending to lose my artistic side and lose the skills that I've fought for over the last 10 years as an artist," he asserts. "You know how Tobey Maguire does Spider-Man and then he gets to go do an indie film? Those guys get to do that. I don't think music's that different."

And if Ingram has anything to do with it, "Wherever You Are" will be the first in a string of hits to come in the future. Looking in that direction, where does he hope to be in 10 years? "Man, it wouldn't be bad to be right back in this arena."

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