That's Not Him

He doesn't write songs about being Texan, drinkin' Shiner, plowing a rut on Interstate 35, pulling into Gruene Hall, selling out for a case of Miller Lite. That's why he's not staring out from the cover of the latest issue of Texas Monthly, another blond head with that coy who-me? look spread across his face. Actually, it could have been him, but that was a long time ago. His first album, dating back to 1993, opened with a line about "a young man driving down a dirty road" in his beat-up Ford. His live album, two years later, kicked off with a tune about "the sun going down over San Antone," 'cuz that's how we Texans say it--San Antone. But that wasn't him--not those songs, not the crowd that ate 'em up and drank 'em down, none of it.

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."

And he didn't, which is almost reason enough to like hell out of Jack Ingram.

But liking someone for who and what he ain't--a phenomenon, mostly, a spark in a fuel tank--isn't good enough. Ingram deserves better than to be admired for what he didn't become. Instead, admire him for what he is: a songwriter of substance, a singer of depth, a musician with the courage of his convictions. All of it adds up to what is easily the best album of a decade-long career: Electric, being released this week by Sony Music Entertainment's Lucky Dog imprint. Not to diminish its five predecessors, it's nonetheless the culmination of years spent figuring out who he is, what he wants and what he has to offer. It might not sell well--Ingram is a cliché only in that he's too rock for country radio, too country for rock radio and too good for any of it these days--but that is hardly the point anymore.

Electric, not to bury it beneath too much hyperbole, is the kind of record the longtime follower and fan always knew Ingram had in him. It's pissed off but never bitter ("Sometimes you get beat up good/Drive yourself crazy being misunderstood/Sometimes you wanna throw the towel in/But you come out swinging like you just might win"), poignant without being maudlin ("What Makes You Say," a stirring duet with Patty Griffin), spiritual without proselytizing (the front-porch blues of "Pete, Jesus and Me") and stirring without getting bogged down in the sap (the ghostly closer "Goodnight Moon," which might just play to the new-age set). It doesn't ignore those who like their country music frost-brewed ("We're All in This Together," which is so dead-on it almost plays like knowing parody), but it doesn't pander to them either.

Which makes him a hard sell, to radio and even to his own label. When Ingram first turned in Electric, Lucky Dog execs were confounded. They told him he'd made a rock record; they told him it wasn't commercial enough; they asked where's the single. He didn't know what to say, except that the country music he heard in his head wasn't what was getting played on the radio. Fine, they told him, if you don't wanna sell.

But, see, Ingram does want to sell, but only if he can do it without selling out, without giving in. So he went back to his stash of songs and pulled out one written by friend Scott Miller, a smirking rave-up called "I Won't Go With Her," on which Ingram steps out of the spotlight to do a little spoken-word in between choruses. When he told the label this was the single, the execs didn't buy it.

"I went in and cut it and came back," Ingram recalls, "and they said, 'What are you doing, man? You didn't cut us a single. Why are you such an asshole?' You know what I mean? They thought I was fucking with them."

But Ingram's relationship with the label is not antagonistic, not at all. He likes to say it's one "of mutual respect." Their goals are the same: to move product, to move people. But these days, those objectives do not always meet at the center. Ingram--who was No Depression before the alleged movement had a name or a tip sheet, who was abandoning the frat-gig circuit while there was still loose change on the ground--has never been in the right place at the right time. And that makes him a valuable commodity in worthless times. Better to stick to your guns than fire blanks, like so many acts wearing hats to cover empty heads or singing about how much they loves they mama as much as they loves being from Texas, yee-haw.

"There are still people that come up to me with my first record and say, 'Why don't you do shit like that?,'" he says, wearing a look somewhere between grin and frown. "And I say, 'Thank you, where do you want me to sign? Thank you very much.' You know, I let go of that a long time ago. Then I let go of it again when my choices became clear as to what kind of gigs I was going to take and not take, and then I became very clear about the expectations of the record, especially when you realize Sony could be Warner Bros. tomorrow and I could be not on a major label. And those expectations are real--they're great one day, next day they're nothing. Ten years into this, I have to learn to let go of a lot of stuff before I even hit my stride as a recording artist. Not as a songwriter, but as a recording artist. I've learned to let go of a lot of those kind of expectations because, man, I could sell 15 million this time, or I could sell 10 copies. And it's not going to make this record any better or worse."

After dinner, after he signs his name for Royal China's music-loving owner, Ingram heads across the street to Borders Books and Music. There, the latest issue of Texas Monthly sits in the magazine racks, just arrived that day. Ingram wants to read the cover story about Pat Green--"a friend of mine," he insists, just to make sure there are no misunderstandings.

A couple of years ago, Ingram says, he might have been bitter about that cover going to somebody else. Hell, he's never even been profiled in the magazine, not even in brief; forget about top billing. But all that's past him now, beyond discussion. When he says all that matters is the work, writing and performing the songs he wants to hear and playing them to people who actually listen, you believe him. You have to, because he could have been somebody else--Pat Green, nah; Steve Earle, maybe one day; Robert Earl Keen, whatever--and instead decided to be Jack Ingram, for better or worse.

"On your palm you've got a lifeline," he begins, holding out his hand. "There's a solid line, and I'm walking it. I'm not running it. If you come up and push a guy who's running, he's going to go off course. If you come up and push a guy who's walking, he's in a stable position, you know? That's how I get to sleep sometimes. Just think, man, I'm all right. I don't have to be on the cover of Texas Monthly this week, 'cause when I am on the cover of some magazine, it's going to mean more to the people who read it. It's not going to be, like you said, a phenomenon--and that's nothing against my man, he's a friend of mine. But my music is made, and when 15,000 or 100,000 gather around to see what I do and pay good money to do it, we have a party. People drink beer, they have a ball. I have a ball. But it's not because it's a party. It's because we're celebrating something, a like-mindedness. So, yeah, let's have a party, but let's do it for a reason."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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