By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
Even though Jack Ingram didn't start playing guitar and writing songs until he hit college, making Texas-style country music is, for him, as natural as breathing. Growing up in The Woodlands, when "it was still the woods," he was weaned on the sounds of what's now referred to as the great Texas progressive country scare of the 1970s.
"The big thing to do for us during the summer was to pack up the kids and go to Gruene and see Jerry Jeff Walker or something," he recalls about his youth. "I distinctly remember my dad always had Phases & Stages in his car, that Willie Nelson record. So I grew up on that, just like you learn how to talk."
So how did it feel for Ingram when he found himself on the stage of Gruene Hall opening for Merle Haggard, no less? "I just took a moment in the middle of the show, and just was like, "Holy shit.' It was one of those moments where you look around and go, "Wow, this is crazy. This is great.' I did the same thing when I had the opportunity to play Austin City Limits. It was the same kinda deal: "Wow, man, how did I get here? And isn't this cool? Aren't I lucky?' "
Ingram's being a bit disingenuous, if charmingly so, when he chalks up his career to lady luck. Sure, he's gotten some amazing breaks. But just as important, he grew up listening to Nelson and Walker and Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, all of whom rubbed off on him. And he's been smart enough to seek out talented co-writers like Jim Lauderdale, Todd Snider and Bruce Robison. Being good-looking and fronting tight bands hasn't hurt either.
Nonetheless, Ingram has been touched, if not massaged, by the fickle fingers of fortune. After all, some artists dream of a music career from childhood. And some of them scheme, work, and even scratch and claw their way toward their big break. Ingram, on the other hand, more or less comfortably slid into making music.
"It wasn't like I was chasing some neon rainbow, as they say. It wasn't until I figured out that I could make a living doing it that I realized I was going to do it. I was just trying to get good," Ingram says of his early years. "And by the time I got good at it, I was at a point where I had written some good songs and could make a living at it. I think I was lucky in that a few of my first songs have turned out to be things that people have held on to."
As a psychology student at Southern Methodist University, Ingram started appearing at the Dallas honky-tonk Adair's, where he honed his act backed by the first edition of his Beat Up Ford Band. People were coming out to see him and wondering if they could take his music home with them. So Ingram cut an album, his self-titled debut, in 1993. "I was lucky enough to stumble onto making a decent record when I had no business making a decent record. [It] ended up being pretty good, and I sold a lot of copies," he says with self-effacing honesty.
By 1995 he'd made three albums that he'd released on his own label, racking up sales in the tens of thousands. Naturally the major labels came calling. And that was when his blessed musical existence hit its first big bump.
Everything looked good at first. He was one of the first acts signed to Rising Tide Records, an MCA offshoot. Steve Earle co-produced Ingram's album Livin' or Dyin'. Then, not long after the disc hit the street, MCA phased out Rising Tide as it streamlined operations for the merger of its parent company, Universal, with PolyGram.
The setback taught Ingram the value of self-reliance, a principle that got him where he was in the first place. "When that label folded and I went back home, I found I had lost some ground, touring-wise, by chasing radio play." So Ingram started working the clubs with a vengeance. When he was picked up by the Sony Nashville farm-team imprint Lucky Dog, he knew not to make the same mistake with his new label. "I decided when I signed with Lucky Dog to get the touring thing going as strong as I could, and not worry about the other stuff," he says.
Strangely enough, Ingram's old label has helped finance his tour for Hey You, the album he released on Lucky Dog last year. MCA was going to scrap some 16,000 copies of Livin' or Dyin' and the Rising Tide rerelease of Ingram's self-produced disc Live at Adair's. But a friend at the label tipped him off. "They gave me a deal. I took out a loan for $10,000, and they gave me all those records for less than a buck." Now he sells them at gigs for a hefty profit. "That's our gas money, right there," notes Ingram. "We sell five Livin' or Dyin' records, we're in the next town."