That's Not Him

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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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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