"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."
Ingram has been on the road almost nonstop since Hey You came out. The endless tour has not been without its highlights. Ingram, for instance, is certainly the only Texas honky-tonker who has shared a club gig with the "Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World," the result of a surprise show by the Rolling Stones at the same venue where Ingram was booked in Toronto.
"We showed up for sound check, and there were all these buses and all these roadies wandering around who looked like they were about 400 years old," he recalls. "The people at the club said, "Sorry, the Rolling Stones are going to play here tonight.' We were like, "Man, don't apologize, just let us in.' They were like, "Hey, we still want you to play.' " Ingram and his group got to see the Stones play, close-up. "Then they tore all their stuff down in about 20 minutes, and we got up and rocked out. It was fun as shit to have a little garage band from across the pond open up for us."
Such heady stuff is becoming almost natural for Ingram. Once at South by Southwest in Austin, actor Forest Whitaker stumbled upon Ingram's show; the next thing he knew, the singer-songwriter was appearing in the Sandra Bullock film Hope Floats, which Whitaker directed in 1998. Later he was cast as a small-town mechanic in another movie, Abilene, which was never released theatrically. No matter, says Ingram. "It was really a lot of fun. I had two scenes, and both of them were one-on-one with Ernest Borgnine."
Little did Ingram know back when he started putting out his own CDs in the early '90s that he would end up being a Texas music trailblazer. By creating his own career path, Ingram has paved the way for such rising Texas country acts as Pat Green, Cory Morrow and Kevin Fowler, none of whom seem to share Ingram's devotion to the masters of Texas songcraft, even though they have captured a rabid Lone Star audience.
"It's strange for me," Ingram confesses of those who have come along in his wake. "It seems that somewhere in the translation, it's just different for those people than it is for me."
But in the end, if one of those acts should happen to break open country radio for contemporary Texas music, then what the hell. It might even help Ingram in some way. "Whoever does it first, however it happens, man, whatever. Just as long as, at some point, people hear my songs," Ingram concludes. "I write my songs for me, and play 'em for them, whoever "they' may be. One night it might be some silly sorority crowd, and the next night some biker crowd. As long as there are people there. I just give 'em this. If they like it, they can take it. If not, they can walk."