He doesn't write songs about being Texan, drinkin' Shiner, 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." But that wasn't him -- not those songs, not the crowd that ate 'em up and drank 'em down, none of it.
Jack Ingram remembers well the moment when he decided to travel 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 Houstonian sing his rowdy, literate country songs. Don't get him wrong. For a long while, Ingram adored that crowd. He worked the frat-party circuit and they adored him right back, 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, as he went looking for his voice like a lost set of keys. It did not take him long to move from Tuesday open-mike nights to closing down beer-and-burger joints well past last call on Saturdays.
"And then I said, 'Naw, man, this ain't what I'm going to be,' " Ingram says now.
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The epiphany arrived when he decided to record a live disc in Dallas. It's the album most frequently 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, 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 the Dallas club 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.
"I made a live record with my songs, and I was, in my mind, pouring out to these people, and that's a reciprocities kind of situation: 'I give you this, and you respect it,' " he continues, his speech slow and reflective. "But then we had to put fake applause into that record. And then I said, 'You know what, man, this ain't happening. I'm not going to write songs that mean something to me 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 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."
And he didn't, which is almost reason enough to like the hell out of Jack Ingram.
But liking someone for who and what he ain't 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, released this week by Sony'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 -- 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's hardly the point anymore.
Electric, not to bury it beneath too much hyperbole, is the kind of record the longtime fan always knew Ingram had in him. It's by turns pissed off but never bitter, poignant without being maudlin, spiritual without proselytizing and stirring without getting bogged down in the sap. It doesn't ignore those who like their country music frost-brewed, but it doesn't pander to them, either.
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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?' 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, 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?' "