Much has been made of Jack Ingram's affiliation with roots-rock outlaw Steve Earle, and, needless to say, it's done wonders for Ingram's credibility. Prior to the release of his major-label debut Livin' or Dyin' -- a CD co-produced by Earle -- the 27-year-old Woodlands native was strumming away in the shadow of his more established Texas singer/songwriter brethren, namely Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen. That Walker just happened to be one of Ingram's idols growing up, and that he closely resembled the sort of well-coifed, frat-house rabble that tends to dominate many a Keen shows these days, didn't do much to strengthen Ingram's chances of being considered much more than a harmless reflection of his influences.
With a voice smooth enough for Nashville, boyish good looks and tunes ripe for a retooling that would accommodate the country industry's platinum standard, Ingram could easily have gone the Music City route if he had so desired. His manager, booking agent and publicist are all based there, and Nashville composer Tom Littlefield is a favorite songwriting partner. Ingram even put aside his disdain for the hat-act meat grinder long enough to record Livin' or Dyin' in Nashville. Still, Ingram hesitates to cozy up to the place; that, perhaps, would veer too far from the grassroots ethos of his Texas heroes. In his own self-effacing way, Ingram isn't about to cave to others' conceptions of how a good-natured product of Houston's moneyed suburbs should act.
"Basically, Livin' or Dyin' is where my tastes are," Ingram says. "It isn't a deliberate attempt to move away from anything. It's more of an attempt to move toward what I want to sound like anyway."
It would seem, then, that Ingram enlisted the aid of the Twang Trust -- Earle and engineer Ray Kennedy -- for all the right reasons. He guessed correctly that Kennedy's dead-aim approach to recording would capture his backup trio, the Beat Up Ford Band, at their slick-around-the-edges finest. Livin' or Dyin' tracks such as "Nothin' Wrong with That," "Ghost of a Man," "Flutter" and "Picture on My Wall" (a playful, life-on-the-road duet with Jerry Jeff Walker) are well-crafted and precise, but also just rowdy enough to be heard over the clamor of a drunken tussle in any West Texas roadhouse.
It's apparent that Earle, with his scarred drawl and broad interpretation of what constitutes soul, had a hand -- consciously or otherwise -- in corrupting Ingram's vocals, which until Livin' or Dyin' had rarely strayed from a place just this side of well-mannered. And if a smidgen of Earle's hell-bent, others-be-damned mythos rubbed off on Ingram's fresh-shaven image in the process, all the better.
"There's a handful of influences that are important to me," Ingram says. "If I'd gotten any one of those to produce this record, that's who people would be saying it sounds like. I've never really been worried about comparisons. That just doesn't bother me."
Actually, it's not like Ingram really has to worry about people mistaking him for Steve Earle. His relatively privileged past could never be confused with Earle's hard-living history. Telephoning from Dallas, a half-hour late for our interview, Ingram apologizes profusely. "Sorry, man," he says, "I've been on the road a long time." It's like he's anticipating a scolding, as if he feels he isn't allowed the luxury of oversleeping, despite just having been to Europe and back.
While Earle can boast of various scrapes with the law and chronic bouts of drug addiction, Ingram's most shocking admission may be to overdoing it on the booze his freshman year at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He even graduated from SMU on time, with a liberal arts degree, which seems to imply that redneck lady-killers such as the one he portrays in songs such as "Nothin' Wrong with That" are, for the most part, rough-hewn figments of Ingram's imagination.
"Steve and I do come from the same place musically, you know," says Ingram a bit defensively.
Maybe so, but the two definitely don't hail from the same place physically. An exceedingly polite, well-reared product of The Woodlands, Ingram looks like the supreme version of blue-blooded, all-American manhood; he appears to be the sort of nice young fellow any suburban matron would be happy to have courting her daughter or consorting with her son. The youngest in a brood of three, everything about him screams "normal," from his beaming, well-scrubbed complexion, J. Crew wardrobe and love of sports to his real-estate developer father and a childhood affinity for the Beatles and Willie Nelson.
"When I was like 16, [John Mellencamp's] Scarecrow came out; I really dug that record," Ingram recalls, which was about the closest he came to being truly excited by any new music.
Ingram didn't even consider picking up an instrument until he was 18. Tiring of SMU social life, he began killing time by learning chords on an acoustic guitar, his interest sparked by a single lesson from Reed Easterwood, a Dallas guitarist who eventually become a member of Ingram's first band.
"The first song I ever learned to play was 'Me and Bobby McGee,' " Ingram says, slightly embarrassed.
Soon enough, though, he was piecing together renditions of old tunes by the likes of not just Kris Kristofferson, but also Walker and Nelson. Before long, he was coming up with his own country shuffles in the plain-spoken tradition of his idols. A Dallas dive called Adair's provided Ingram the perfect place for his trial by fire as a performer.
"I'd go there with my older brother," Ingram remembers. "They had this cover band there on Thursday nights that was really good, and they were playing all these old country songs. It was kind of a little hideaway."
Inspired by the laid-back atmosphere, Ingram finally got enough songs together to feel comfortable asking for a night of his own. "Those first shows were bad, man," he laughs. "There'd be like three people there, and one of them would always leave when I started, or some guy would be yelling, 'When are you takin' a break, dude?' "
Fairly quickly, though, word spread about the 20-year-old who seemed born to make his living on a stage. And before long, he had a lock on Tuesday nights at Adair's. As the crowds grew larger, Ingram became increasingly more comfortable being the center of attention. Sharing music, beer and idle conversation with fans night after night, he developed a remarkably candid rapport with his audience that continues to this day. College crowds were drawn to Ingram, and for an obvious reason: He was one of them. Right up there on-stage, in the flesh, was every frat rat's dream of following in the footsteps of Robert Earl Keen, not to mention every swooning coed's personification of straight-arrow Texas cool.
With word of his success at Adair's spilling out onto the streets, Ingram found himself a solid backup band and hit the regional college circuit. Between 1992 and 1995 he released a trio of self-funded CDs, the last being a rousing live effort that was recorded at his Adair's proving grounds. All that hard work made for a buzz too persistent to ignore, and by 1996 Ingram was sitting pretty on Universal Music Group's new Rising Tide label.
Nowadays, Ingram's life isn't what most would deem normal. When he's not on the road (where, of late, he is most of the time) he resides in Dallas, to which he pays tongue-in-cheek tribute on Livin' or Dyin' with a scratchy cover of Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Dallas." He's married to his college sweetheart, a pharmaceutical sales rep whom he addresses most directly on the tender Dyin' original, "I Can't Leave You." As you might expect, with Ingram gone so much, theirs is not a typical marriage. Still, it seems to be working.
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"And it provides great stuff for songs," he says.
Livin' or Dyin', Ingram's first release for Rising Tide, has been met with largely positive response; it's even garnered itself a few out-and-out raves. An edgier, more self-assured pronouncement of self than most folks expected from Ingram at this point, its quality bodes well for his future. And the fact that Earle and Kennedy were impressed enough with Ingram's Beat Up Ford Band -- which currently includes drummer Pete Coatney, bassist Gus Salmon and guitarist Allen Wooley -- to allow them free rein in the studio further cements their solid status as a live act to be reckoned with.
As for those frequent and, at times, unflattering comparisons to certain elder Texas singer/songwriters, don't expect them to end any time soon. Ingram certainly doesn't.
"Getting lumped into that whole Jerry Jeff/Robert Earl thing is fantastic, as far as I'm concerned" he says. "I'm exactly where I want to be."
Jack Ingram performs Friday, November 28, at Garden in the Heights, 3926 Feagan. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. Trish Murphy opens. For info, call 523-7004.