Jack Ingram had already established himself as a booming Texas export when “Wherever You Are” turned him into a nationally celebrated chart-topper in 2005. Nearly 15 years later, he straddles the border between the country mainstream’s outermost orbit — thanks to award-winning songs like Miranda Lambert’s “Tin Man,” which he co-wrote with Lambert and Jon Randall — and the Americana world. He talks about both camps during his second appearance on Chris Shiflett’s Walking the Floor podcast.
Born outside of Houston, Ingram came to Nashville during the mid-2000s, already flush with regional success back home in Texas. As one of the first artists signed to Nashville’s Big Machine label, he initially hoped to infiltrate — and maybe subvert — the Music Row machine.
“I thought Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff [Walker] and those guys didn’t have consistent hits on the radio back in the Seventies because they weren’t trying hard enough,” he says, laughing at his own naivety. “And I just figured that once I started having hits on the radio, I’d do the bait-and-switch. And then I realized that’s not how it works, man. Those guys on Music Row are doing just fine. They like what they’re doing. They’re not bitching about Florida Georgia Line or anybody else. So you come in from Texas and you’re like, ‘I’m here to help you guys. I’m gonna have some hits on the radio and we’re gonna turn this thing into what it should’ve been the whole time!’ And they’re like, ‘Fuck you. You wanna get into our party and start talking about how our chicks are ugly?'”
Ingram soon realized that changing the inner workings of Nashville’s country-pop industry was “gonna be an uphill battle, and not worth fighting for an entire career.” Years later, he’s back in the Americana camp, with several Top 40 hits under his belt and a clearer career path in his head. Better still, he’s not attempting to mold the musical tastes of the masses. “People like what they like, man,” he tells Shiflett. “4.7 billion people eat at McDonalds. And hamburger joints I like are not that.”
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Although Ingram remains a proud country musician, he credits his own rock & roll ethos with adding a raw, loose spirit to his music.
“Rock & roll feels like it might fall apart when it’s done right,” he explains. “To me, rock & roll isn’t a style of music; it’s a state of mind. Jerry Jeff Walker is as big a rock & roller as Mick Jagger. George Jones, too. People who’re willing to lay it out and fall headfirst out of a window, onto the street.” Looking back on his time in Nashville, he doesn’t always see the same devil-may-care spirit at play. “That’s one of the things that was really stifling about a couple of the records I made in the mainstream world, on Music Row,” he adds. “[Those musicians] are not willing to fail.”
That said, he has great respect for the instrumentalists who perform on Nashville’s hit records.
“These players, man — they’re better than Tiger Woods at their instruments,” he says. “They can play anything they want. They just rarely get to do what they want.”
His love for the imperfections of rawly recorded musicians was catalyzed at a young age, listening to records with his outlaw heroes.
“I remember as a kid, having headphones on, or laying down on the floor with the speakers aimed at my ears, and listening to music and going, ‘What are they doing?’ You can hear somebody say something, or a person drop something. When Willie Nelson did ‘I’d Have to be Crazy’. . .During the bridge, there’s some baritone voice in the studio and you can hear him feeding Willie the lines! It just wowed me, that they were so loose. And I began to realize that’s what I was into.”
Charlie Sexton plays guitar on Ingram’s newest album, Ridin’ High…Again.
“He got burned, man,” says a sympathetic Ingram, when asked why Charlie Sexton’s solo career never truly took flight during the 1980s. “He was gonna be the next big thing, two or three times. And he was fucking gorgeous. He’s got better cheekbones than Liv Tyler. When that, for whatever reason, didn’t work. . .He was in an era when tight pop/rock was coming into vogue, and I think he got burned.” But Ingram also commends Sexton for earning his spot as a right-hand man to several musical legends, without having to deal with many of the less-than-artistic aspects of the music business. “He’s one of the best guitar players in the world,” Ingram adds. “He’s a walking encyclopedia. And as you know, some people get into that role where they get to be part of great projects, and they don’t have to do any of the other bullshit.”
These days, Ingram is content to let his own music do the talking for him.
“If I make the right record one day, it’ll all pop in the way I’ve seen it work for other people, where the music just leads — it goes in front of you,” he says. “I spent the whole first half [of my career] being out in front of my music, because I was scared it wouldn’t work, and I wouldn’t have a career and people wouldn’t dig it, so I’d get out in front of it and go, ‘Yeah man, we’re doing this and that.’ And now I’m like, ‘Fuck this, man. The music needs to go work for me. Go find people who like it, and they’ll come back and I’ll be nice to them. I’ll do what I do in the way that I do, if they like it. If they don’t, I can’t control it and I’m done trying.'”