Feature: Wednesday, April 18, 2002
Posterboyof ’Poke

By “alt-country” in the dictionary: Jack Ingram’s headshot

By Paula Felps

If it hadn’t all turned out so well, Jack Ingram would be doing the listening instead of the talking. He’d be using the psych degree he earned at SMU, spending his days trying to get inside of other people’s heads instead of letting them inside of his.

But as time passes, the chance that Ingram is going to need that degree grows ever slimmer. A decade after he decided to take his musical interests to the stage, Ingram has become something of a poster boy for the alternative country music scene. Two self-released c.d’s led to a pair of albums on the indie Rising Tide label, and Electric — his second disc for Sony Nashville/Lucky Dog — hits shelves in June. The embodiment of the new renegade country music scene, Ingram finds his name is frequently dropped in publications ranging from Billboard to The Washington Post to USA Today in explanations of the burgeoning Texas music phenomenon. Ingram is clearly part of an elite membership that includes a growing list of names like Deryl Dodd, Bruce and Charlie Robison, Todd Snider, and Jim Lauderdale, all of whom specialize in infectious, country-based melodies played with the soul and sweat of rock ’n’ roll.

“I understand the whole thing about being part of a scene or a movement, but as a songwriter, as a musician, I just started out doing what I know how to do,” he says. “I wasn’t adept enough to do different styles, so I just stuck to the one thing I could do.”

His music pre-dates the “alternative country” music movement and may outlast it. Ingram notes that scenes will come and go — he merely plans to keep doing what he’s doing: making records and selling out clubs. In short, he never set out to become the flag-bearer for a new musical movement; he just happened to be the right man for the job, who showed up at the right time.

“I got lucky,” he says. “My timing was good. I (started) at the end of the days of (making) tapes and demos, when they still considered c.d.’s to be the real thing. Everyone had a tape out, but if you had a c.d., man, they thought you were the real thing.

“I made a c.d. and pretty soon I was making a living.”

It might have been luck that got Ingram in the spotlight, but it would take much more than that to keep him there. Even before the Internet created a buzz independent of what mainstream radio was — or wasn’t — doing, Ingram was packing houses. Touring continuously with his Beat-Up Ford Band, it took about a year for Ingram to go from a wanna-be to a recognized name. Just as Ingram’s star was rising, the insurgent country music sound became an uprising of its own, and the Dallas musician found himself carried along by the momentum.

“I think a lot of it had to do with the numbers. You had all these people coming at (the music) from different angles, and they all landed in the same spot at the same time,” he says. “You had people who were doing the stuff that I do, plus the people from the rock world who became disenfranchised and got into roots music. And it just got big.”

But “big” doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars — or radio airplay. Ingram is noticeably irritated by the lack of radio support; commercial dials continue spinning starched-shirt country pop even as Nashville flounders to find a new sound.

“Part of the thing that gets to me is that it’s not played on the radio, not yet,” he says. “But that’s how I look at it — not yet. This thing is continuing to grow, and it’s bigger than Texas. It’s bigger than selling 100,000 records. The stuff that I’m writing about, that people like Bruce (Robison) and other artists are doing, it’s not just for Texas. People everywhere are finding this music and falling in love with it.”

In Ingram’s case, the love affair is mutual. He is a fan of “real” country music, digging his heels into sounds like Tom T. Hall, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, and Billy Joe Shaver. Rock influences are just as prevalent in his music, from Elvis Costello to Tom Petty. It all fits together perfectly, arriving at a lively, rock-hard brand of fresh and often frenzied honky-tonk. On his new album, the edge is harder and more noticeable than on earlier efforts.

“I think more and more with this record, I’m allowing my rock influences to take a bigger stance in my music,” he says. “In record company terms, you would say it has crossover appeal, but this music has always had that. We’re getting the same audience who goes to see Cracker and the Old 97’s and Train. We also get the people who go see George Strait.”

That demographic is what gives Ingram his greatest hope — not just for his own music, but for the future of country music in general. He points to Robert Earl Keen, who has been able to take a very personal form of music into some large, impersonal spaces and still maintain that one-on-one intimacy between fan and music.

“It’s interesting to see what happens when you put this kind of music in front of 25,000 people. To see that this can play in front of crowds like that and it stands up, you know the music is good. If this thing breaks, and I think it will, it’s going to be bigger than anyone can imagine right now.”

Regardless of when — or if — that happens, Ingram has every intention of following this road to the end. He’ll begin touring at the end of May in support of his new disc, a tour that will include a rigorous summer schedule. In the meantime, he’s doing a string of solo acoustic shows around Texas unlike any shows he’s done before.

“These are the most intimate shows I’ve ever done,” he says. “The stage is set up like a motel room, and it’s just me, sitting on the side of the bed with my guitar, singing and playing.”

The idea to do such a show grew out of a desire to get back to the songs’ origins — and many of them were written on the road, in empty motel rooms. He wanted to put them back in their element, and at the same time create a show that isn’t as hard-driving as a typical Jack Ingram outing.

“With everything that is going on in the world, and the way that everything is blaring at people all the time, I wanted to do something that was quieter and simpler,” he says.

“To get people in a room, and let them sit down and take a breath and still be able to entertain them — that’s nice.”

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