DFW Music News

Q&A: In Advance Of His Saturday Night Benefit Show, Jack Ingram Talks Texas Country, Writing Hits and The Importance of Arts in Schools

Dallas-raised and SMU-educated country star Jack Ingram is still a relatively new name on the national stage for fans that live outside of the Lone Star State.

But, for those of us who have lived around these parts for years and have scribbled all sorts of illegible items on the walls of Adair's, however, Ingram is a veritable brand name that's synonymous with good times and greater songs that blur the lines between country, folk and rock.

Before his 2005 mainstream breakthrough, Ingram was often stuck looking in from the outside of the big leagues, with national stardom always just out of his lengthy reach. But, even now that he's a video star who has ascended the charts on several occasions, he still finds himself hovering just beneath the absolute pinnacle of the mega-mountain that is modern country music for the masses. While platinum-plated stars such as Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley seem to have each single rubber-stamped into the Top 10, Ingram knows that for an artist like him, any hit -- whether it be major or minor -- could easily be his last.

We had a few moments to chat with Ingram this week as he gears up for a Saturday night benefit show at the University of North Texas with certified star Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland for the Attic Community Project, an organization that's doing its best to help schools put art and music back into its classrooms.

Turns out, Ingram's got a few thoughts on writing his own songs, singing ones written by others and why the Texas music scene isn't really a scene, but is still pretty sweet. Check out our Q&A in full after the jump.

Tell me a bit about the benefit you're performing at this weekend in Denton.
Attic Community Playground's goal is to raise money for different schools and organizations to keep music and the arts in their schools. We're doing this one for Ponder High School's band and choir programs. Any time I get a chance to help out with something like this, I do it. I just don't understand why, when cuts have to be made -- or do they? I guess that's a whole different argument -- why are the arts always chosen first to be cut? Somebody, at some point, believed that music and the arts were important enough to be included in school. But now they're always the first programs to go.

What impact did music classes have on you in school?
Obviously, as a musician, it was very important to me. Mrs. Little was my music teacher in middle school and it had a very profound impact on my life, including in all the ways that one can tell from the outside, I guess.

Jennifer Nettles is quite the big deal these days. How did you get to know her and come to help her out with this project?
Back in 2006, I was the first act on the Brooks & Dunn tour where she [performing with her band, Sugarland] was also playing. With only a little break in between, we basically toured from April and November of that year together.

When you first came up and then made a considerable name for yourself in the Texas country scene, it seemed to be a generally smaller scene, whereas now it's basically an industry unto itself. What are your thoughts of the Texas or Red Dirt scene now that you've been a national act for the last few years?
Well, I never thought of what I did as "Texas music" or "Texas country," really. Not that I'm putting myself in the same league as him, but Willie Nelson wasn't a part of a scene, as so many have tried to say that he was. He was just a country music leader who happened to be from Texas. That's what I've always wanted for myself -- especially back when I was first getting started. There are guys that are a part of the scene now that are so good and will naturally continue to make Texas talent vital and will always make Nashville look down and take notice, as they always have. Sean McConnell, who isn't from Texas, is considered to be a part of the scene now, and he has some badass songs. Hayes Carll is considered to be a star from Texas. I know that his goal is to be the best -- not just the best from Texas. Be from Texas, but have bigger goals. I think that there are still people doing that in Texas and that's why the scene will continue to grow. I mean, Bob Wills didn't care about being a part of any scene, did he?

You released a newly recorded version of "Barbie Doll" as a single, and it failed to crack the Top 40 charts. That song clearly must mean a lot to you, given that it's been a live favorite of yours for so long.
Yeah, I decided to record it with Dierks Bentley, and release it again because I just knew that there was no way it wasn't a hit song. By forcing the issue with it last year and getting to play it on the ACM Awards show, and then seeing it not become a hit, I came to grips that it's a hit song for me, even if it isn't for anyone else. It's a huge song for me live, so I'm fine with it being a hit just for me.

For your entire career leading up to 2005, the vast majority of the songs in your catalog were either written or co-written by you. Your songs that have hit the charts in recent years are all songs written by someone else, though. Has it been tough to accept that different type of role at this stage in your career?
It's funny, because I think the reason I got into this business was because of what I felt when I write a song. So, as far as not having my name on the songs that have become hits for me, I've had to say, "Well, a lot of great things have happened to me because of those songs, so who cares?" In fact, I now have a better chance of actually writing a hit song than ever before, which is great because I do want to write a hit song. Not for egotistical reasons -- it's just something I want to do. There's a whole lot of moving parts that need to work right to make a song a hit single. My job over the past five years has been to do what I need to do to make it work. Of course, it has to be a song I believe in. If I didn't believe in a song, and I cut it only because I thought it could be a hit, then I'd be a sell-out. But if I love the song, then that's all I need to know. I'm 40 years old now, and if I was going to be a legitimate hit songwriter, I'd already be that by now. I write personal songs that tend to make people feel uncomfortable, which are the kinds of songs I like. Most of the big hits in today's country music don't make people uncomfortable. When I wrote "Biloxi" [a song about Ingram's dad abruptly leaving his family behind during Ingram's teenage years], it was only because I hadn't ever wrote a true song that bled from my heart and was just the truth, and that's what I wanted people to feel. One time, I was thinking about this very thing, and I was listening to a Waylon Jennings greatest-hits compilation with over 40 songs or something like that. Out of all of those songs, he had written only nine or 10 of them, and I realized that you can pick songs that you didn't write to fit you and to be true.

Jack Ingram and Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland perform a benefit for the Attic Community Playground on Saturday, January 15, at the Murchison Center for Performing Arts in Denton. Go here for details and ticket information.

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Kelly Dearmore