Jack Ingram--sitting in the back of Royal China near his Preston Royal home, wearing a white T-shirt and old jeans and the countenance of a movie star--remembers well the moment when he decided to travel down a different path, the trail barren of frat boys in baseball caps and urban dwellers in cowboy lids who paid five bucks cover to drink and shoot pool and, just maybe, listen to the former SMU psychology student sing his rowdy, literate country songs. Don't get him wrong. For a long while, during the first half of the 1990s, Ingram adored that crowd. They happily forked over their bills and bought his CDs by the thousands. They made him good money (often, around $1,500 a night) and brought him attention, the kind that gets major labels sniffing around like someone was spooning out free cocaine.
He worked the frat-party circuit--SMU on a Friday, UT on a Saturday, A&M the day after the day after that--and they adored him, genuinely. Armed with a fistful of originals and appropriate covers (by Willie Nelson and Robert Earl Keen, Merle Haggard and...Tom Waits?), he provided the homegrown soundtrack to a night of whoopin' it up. Not too long before that, Ingram had been another folkie on the short circuit, a kid strumming his guitar as he went looking for his voice like a lost pair of keys. It did not take him long to move from open-mike nights at the Hard Rock Café to closing down beer-and-burger joints well past last call.
"And it was at that point where I said, 'Naw, man, this ain't what I'm going to be, this is not what my career's going to look like,'" Ingram says now. Like the song says on Ingram's 1997 album Livin' or Dyin', "That's Not Me."
The epiphany arrived when he decided to record a live disc at Adair's on Commerce Street, backed by what was then an all-star line-up of locals: ex-Fever in the Funhouse frontman Chris Claridy on guitar, former Brave Combo drummer Mitch Marine on bass, Rumble's Pete Coatney on drums, powwow's Reed Easterwood on banjo, Milo Dearing on fiddle. It's the album most often pointed to by outsiders as the turning point in Ingram's career, though often for all the wrong reasons. Yes, it got the majors interested (for a while, it was even scheduled to be released on Warner Bros., till Ingram decided to go with manager Ken Levitan's new Rising Tide imprint with MCA distribution), and, yes, it sold by the thousands. And, yeah, it's a pretty good album--a coming-of-age record, in fact, on which he stopped sounding like his influences and started sounding like himself.
Problem was, nobody at Adair's in the summer of '95, when the disc was cut, seemed to notice that standing before him, the boy was becoming a man. And for the first time, Ingram noticed the beer was louder than the music.
"I've never really put it in such a complete, wrapped package like that, to say that was the gig, but if I had to look back, I'd say that one gig made me really change my mind," Ingram says. He sips his beer, leans back and squints his eyes. He's deep into it, thinking back about moving ahead.
"I made a live record with my songs, and I was, in my mind, pouring out to these people, and that's a reciprocal kind of situation: I give you this, and you respect it. If you buy the ticket, it means that you're buying into what I'm giving you," he continues, his speech slow and reflective. "But then we had to put fake applause into that record. And it was at that point that I said, 'You know what, man, this ain't happening. I'm not going to have a career where I'm writing songs that are very personal to me and mean something to me and go out and play them so people can slosh around in their beer. And I'm not going to pour beer on myself to get along with these people.' There's other people, 'cause I know I'm one of them, that seek this stuff that I'm doing out, and I'm going to find them. I've never said that to anybody, I've never really thought of it, but it was like, man, you don't make a live record with these kind of songs and have crowd noise and people talking. And if that's the kind of career I've got to have, I'm not going to have it. I won't do it."