On May 18, 2008 a 37-year-old Jack Ingram triumphantly took the stage of the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas to accept the ACM trophy for Best New Male Vocalist. Standing there in his GQ best, Ingram, who grew up in Houston before heading off for SMU in Dallas, offered up an inspirational speech that a genuinely “new” artist wouldn’t have been able to muster convincingly. As he proclaimed, “dreams come true,” it was easy to see that the Best New Male Vocalist of 2008 was a trusted veteran giving a hard-earned mid-career progress report.
Given that the Best New Male Vocalist award had been won by the likes of blockbuster artists such as Keith Urban and Jason Aldean in the previous years, it was reasonable to think the cement on Ingram’s A-list status was freshly dried. But in a twist few saw coming, Ingram would only release one more album before his days as a pop-country idol would seemingly be over.
To be fair, 2009’s Big Dreams and High Hopes was a fine effort, albeit one with more than its share of slick production. The album contained the considerable radio hit “Barefoot and Crazy” as well as “Seeing Stars,” a gorgeous duet with Patty Griffin that earned Ingram another ACM nomination. But it’s safe to say the record, with only that one legitimate hit, didn’t meet the high commercial expectations of the label, which had been booming thanks to the insurgent, historic sales of the pre-pop Taylor Swift. As 2011 rolled on, Ingram was back to hitting the roads as an indie artist after a reportedly amicable split from Big Machine. Even then, it would be several years until he would ready another record.
The long-gestating Midnight Motel is finally here, set for release this Friday through Rounder Records, and as it happens, the long road it’s traveled has been a part of the plan all along.
“There are a lot of reasons why it’s taken this long to put a new record out,” Ingram says over the phone from his home in Austin. “There was something inside telling me to create some distance between what I’ve done and what I’m going to do. I really needed to take a breath and think of how I was going to change gears. When you’re in the pop-country world, you have to focus on the same thing and sound the same way for too long. But I needed some time to release an album like Midnight Motel. You don’t just take a left turn when you’re driving 120 miles per hour; you’ve got to figure out how to properly navigate that turn, and I needed some time to understand what kind of artist I wanted to dedicate myself to being.”
Though it’s taken seven years for Ingram to release this album, it seems the gaps between future releases will likely to be a bit smaller. “I have another record ready to come out after Midnight Motel,” he admits. “I plan on taking a lot of left turns and a lot of right turns.”
Ingram, who released his self-titled debut in 1995, hasn’t been a new country artist for two decades. A couple of years after that, his Steve Earle-produced Livin’ or Dyin’ LP found critical acclaim; its mix of heartland rock and classic country proved Ingram was different than the increasing number of ballcap-wearing frat boys beginning to fill the club circuit in Texas at the time. While the single “Flutter” failed to crack the Top 40, the promise was real and his rep was being forged. Of course, in the late '90s, the Internet was still new, and the Texas Country scene (or more accurately, Texas Music Industry) was in its diaper-wrapped infancy.
Also around that time, Ingram, Pat Green, Charlie Robison and a few others were joining the likes of Robert Earl Keen to represent something akin to what we now recognize as an insular subgenre of country music. But for Ingram, making a musical name for himself didn’t involve following a worn-out path created by regionally-powered radio stations, record labels or a bustling festival circuit.
“My first record came out on cassette,” he says with a laugh. “And when I first started, there wasn’t any sort of Texas scene. There had been Willie and Waylon, and they led to guys like Jerry Jeff Walker and Ray Wylie Hubbard and to Robert Earl Keen, and that was it, man. You had to break in by breaking in. I got gigs because I asked to play, not because people were offering me gigs. For me, the Texas music scene has always been a rock-and-roll thing, or a punk Do-It-Yourself thing where you make things happen by getting out there and kicking in some teeth. Most guys like me aren’t going to be able to win The Voice with sheer natural singing talent, so we have had to win fans by putting on great shows and being real about who we are.”
Most of the songs for this record were written in between 2009 and 2014. Recorded in Austin at Arlyn Studios, Ingram and crew also used the stunning, high-dollar Hotel St. Cecilia next door as sort of a home base during the process. That much isn’t surprising, as Ingram has long employed the imagery and isolation of road lodging as a vehicle for his songs. His series of "Acoustic Motel" shows feature a stage decked out as a vintage roadside motel room with a bed Ingram would sit on as he provided the background to many of his songs.
“Most writing I had been doing during those years was in hotels and motels and usually around midnight,” he explains. “There was a lot of sifting through the ashes of different relationships from my past of all kinds, personal, professional, everything.”
The new record couldn’t be more different than his last couple of highly polished albums. And to his amusement, he’s heard comments suggesting the new material remind some of his early days, a vague judgment he can’t help but get a bit of a chuckle out of. “Which 'old stuff' are they talking about?” he wonders. “My 1993, or 1997, or 2000, or 2005 stuff?”
The new album's lead single, “I'm Drinking Through It” (complete with a slightly profane chorus on the album version), is a screw-it-all singalong that’s sadder than the jaunty vibe suggests. Another tune offers an even greater example of the way Ingram is heading now, however. “Blaine’s Ferris Wheel,” a charming tribute to Blaine Martin, the gregarious former owner of Blaine’s Pub in San Angelo who died in 2009, is indeed a moving song, but it’s the four-minute spoken intro Ingram delivers that offers insightful narrative that’s often tough to find in most modern country music.
“There’s a power to telling the stories behind songs,” he says. “I want to give people something they didn’t know they wanted. That song is a good song on its own, but I was able to give what may sound like a melancholy song a different kind of life by setting it up like that.”
Ingram agrees there’s not a chance he would’ve been able to put several minutes of story time on a major label record, and that freedom is something he relishes more now.
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“That’s the beauty of making records on my own at this point in my career,” he says. “I can do whatever I want. I made my career out of nothing, so I’m not going to by some rules that other people make."
While accepting major national awards and landing number one hits may not be in his immediate future, Ingram’s exactly where he wants to be. No longer a “new artist” in any way, he’s long been moving forward, and he’s stoked to make the kind of music only he can make. Midnight Motel is a strong way to re-emerge and it is indeed packed with one-of-a-kind creations.
“I know what I am and what I do. This business can’t beat me because I’m confident in the kind of career I have. And, besides, I don’t want to make music for everybody; just for everybody that wants to hear me.”