Jack Ingram was having one of those full-circle moments before he arrived at Rolling Stone Country's Nashville studio to talk about his first new album in seven years, Midnight Motel. He'd been at a recording session with Steve Earle most of the day, reuniting with the legend who produced the album that put Ingram on the country music map, 1997's Livin' or Dyin'. The singer-songwriter laughs when we refer to Earle as his "buddy."
"Oh, we're not buds!" he clarifies. "It's always been a mentorship, because when I met Steve I was making my first major label record and didn't know what I was doing. I just knew I wanted to jump in the water – but didn't know how to swim. In my 20s and early 30s, I was just fervently trying to observe, almost in a panic state. I was looking for any clue about how to make music that was meaningful."
The Texas native remembers a story from those early days when he finally saw past Earle's gruff exterior into his more human side. Ingram was doing a photo shoot, his wife of just three months standing on the sidelines while photographers instructed a gorgeous model to get "handsie" with him. Ingram saw Earle in the studio later that afternoon and asked what he would've done.
"He said, 'Say yes to everything the label wants you to do — unless it messes with your emotional well-being or your relationships. Then, every time, say no,'" Ingram recalls. "That wasn't what I expected! This is an outlaw, Mr. "Copperhead Road," Mr. "I've been to jail" Steve Earle. He's telling me a complex message: to take care of my relationships, to take care of the label, and to have a backbone but still do everything. But that taught me how to make records, how to be emotionally available and how to also have some mystery."
That's a lesson he's carried with him almost two decades later. Midnight Motel could easily be titled Backbone. It's Ingram's first time making a record 100 percent on his own terms. He recorded it live, including witty banter with bandmates in between tracks — and even a few lyric flubs. He wrote the kind of music he idolized as a kid: barroom-ready, country-to-the-core songs that are, for the most part, about navigating the rough waters of relationships. It may not be what country radio wants to play, but it's the kind of music he himself wants to hear — and that's all that matters.
Still, in keeping with Earle's advice, the independence factor was only in making the record — not in marketing it. Leaving Big Machine Records after six fruitful years on the powerhouse label, Ingram didn't take the chip-on-shoulder "I can do this all by myself" approach but instead waited for the right fit for Midnight Motel— eventually finding that with Rounder Records.
We talk to Ingram about his new mindset going into this project and why he's only listening to one opinion about it. He also opens up on the decision to stop chasing his heroes and why one of them, Jerry Jeff Walker, is as big as Mick Jagger.
Why seven years in between albums?
The big secret is I didn't really stop recording. I just got very patient about how I was going to release it . . . and who I was going to work with. It's not just because you put a great song out that it's gonna be a hit. In fact, that couldn't be further from the truth. It's because you have great management, a great label, great promotions people, all of these people that nobody ever sees.
I knew if I was gonna make this thing a heartfelt record, my vision and my vision only, I have to have the right people around me to know how to get the most amount of exposure – whether or not I have a hit song on it. I love all 11 songs, so when I love a song it's a hit. It doesn't have to have a number attached to it. So I made music by myself, without any outside input from labels or management or things like that. I just wanted to make music like my heroes: Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Jerry Jeff Walker. . . They were always talking "for the sake of the song." You do this thing for the sake of the song, not for the sake of the business.
The album kind of sounds like you're in a dive bar, playing an intimate – yet a bit rowdy — show. Was that the feel you were going for?
This was recorded live but not in front of an audience. There are mistakes on it — on purpose. I left [recordings] of us talking in between songs. . . There's one song called "Blaine's Ferris Wheel," and the story is part and parcel to the song. There are a couple of songs where I mess up the lyric. And they go, "Hey, you need to go fix that." And I said no, because records I grew up on were human. They weren't filtered through a computer. We use technology, of course, but as far as the human flaws – that's what I think is beautiful, whether it's a person or music.
Given that you're constantly touring, how much does your live show come in mind when you're writing songs?
A lot, and not at all. It really does depend on the song I'm writing. With something like "I'm Drinking Through It," I know that animal because I have other songs where I knew people are gonna sing loud to this at the bar and we're gonna sell some beer. [Laughs] But in writing something like "Trying" or "Nothing to Fix," I don't care if people don't sing along, I'm still gonna play 'em live. When Neil Young plays his whole record live and people are like, "He didn't play any of his old stuff," I'm as happy as can be. I wanna hear new stuff. As an artist, I'm willing to take the risk of, I’m gonna play this song because I need to hear it. Hopefully you'll dig it, too.
I love people thinking whatever they want to about me through my music. I thought Jerry Jeff [Walker] was the biggest rockstar in the whole wide world. And when I first saw him play when I was 18 years old, there were 120 people in the audience. But to me, he's as big as Mick Jagger. Because his music is that important to him, and it's that important to me. That's the kind of music I want to make.
"If it's gonna last, you're gonna have trouble. I'm not afraid of that."
So many songs in your catalog have served as musical letters to your three kids, whether that's "Measure of a Man" or "Big Dreams and High Hopes." And Midnight Motel definitely balances the drinking songs with life lessons, as well. Is there one track, in particular, written for them?
"Nothing to Fix" is a big part of this record. The first line of that song is, "Don't try to sell what you wouldn't buy, because you'll go to hell for telling a lie." I feel that kind of passion about music. I'm talking to myself through that song and talking to my kids. It's what my dad would've told me: If you don't like it, don't do it! I choose to be here, and it's hard to be away from home – so I have to believe in what I'm doing.
This is loosely a concept album, in two different respects: its lyrics about relationships and the way you wrote it, late at night after putting the kids to sleep — or midnight in a motel if you're on the road. Did you realize the theme after the fact or go into that consciously from the beginning?
From the start, I knew that this whole record was going to be a late-night record — I call them "headphones records," because when I listen to records like these, I get in my bunk on the bus, put my headphones on and just go to another world. I saw this record really delving into troubled, but lasting relationships. Those are the only kinds of relationships I'm interested in, because if it's gonna last, you're gonna have trouble. I'm not afraid of that.
"I Feel Like Drinking Tonight" has a fun intro where you send the song out to buddies including Hayes Carll, Bruce Robison and Charlie Robison, whose name you comically mispronounce.
[Laughs] I like to call him the older, taller, less talented brother. We're gonna tour together later this year.
Who inspired that song?
I actually wrote that about my buddy who I saw get raked across the coals for some of his music. It was like kicking a puppy dog. He just wanted people to drink, have a good time and like his music. But people hated him for it . . . and loved him for it, too.
But when I say [before the song starts], "This song goes out to Funky Donny Fritz. . . ," that's a total rip of [Kris] Kristofferson from his first record. So a lot of [Midnight Motel] is me giving a shout-out to those records that truly inspired me, really hit me in my bones – whether it's Red Headed Stranger (Willie Nelson), Viva Terlingua (Jerry Jeff Walker) or Old No. 1 by Guy Clark. Those records meant something to me. I'm taking what I'm learned and moving forward with it – in a way that makes me feel the way I felt when I first heard this music.
"Being selfish as an artist is the only way to be the most giving."
When you finished recording Midnight Motel and started playing it for your inner circle, whose opinion mattered most?
If there's going to be one fan of this record, it's gonna be me. I've learned how many things in this business are out of my control. The only thing I can control is my music, how I make it and how I feel about it. I think that being selfish as an artist is the only way to be the most giving. An authentic, unique message is universal — whether it's "Friends in Low Places" or "Sunday Morning Coming Down," or even some songs that I hate, they are unique because they're singular.
You say that you've finally gotten over what you call "the insecurity of 'I'm not my heroes.'" How did you get to that point, after 20-something years in the business?
I'm really hard on myself, and I'm glad I am. We all know people who are naturally gifted, whether they can throw a football a hundred yards, sing like Carrie Underwood or write like Townes Van Zandt. They make the most of their talents, but they were way ahead when they started. For me, I knew it was going to take a lot of work to get to the point to where I'm not emulating my heroes but can just be among them. What I meant by "I'm not my heroes" is, I don't have to be. I've put in the work, listened to my songs and have been incredibly critical. . . I'm not there yet, and don't tell me I am because I know I'm not. But when I finally can write a song and say, "good work," that's what I meant by that. I don't have to chase anybody.
You close Midnight Motel with two songs about gratitude, "Can't Get Any Better Than This" and "All Over Again." Are those indicative of your mindset? Is it fair to say you've had as many surreal successes as you've had kicks in the ass?
That's a fair assessment. . . so far. Willie Nelson was 42 when he had his first Number One as an artist. I feel like there's a long open road in front of me. It's a cliché: You've never met anyone at the end of their life who'd say they'd change things. They always say they wouldn't change a thing, even though they'd had great failures along with incredible successes. It's all worth it. So far, so good.
Click here to listen to Jack Ingram's entire Midnight Motel album on Spotify.