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Jack Ingram's gritty, slice-of-life tales deserve a wider hearing on country radio

By Michael McCall

JANUARY 31, 2000:  Jack Ingram bridges the roadhouse and the frat house as well as anyone in country music. Boyishly handsome, with a hint of macho swagger, he's among the few young country stars who appeals to both blue-collar honky-tonkers and out-for-fun college students. Ingram's recent album, Hey You, combines muscular dance-floor shuffles, rocked-up country tunes, roughneck philosophizing, and earthy, plainspoken songs about relationships and getting by in the world. His songwriting makes him a compelling heir to such Lone Star sages as Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen.

But like Walker and Keen before him, Ingram can't seem to get a break from the Nashville music industry or country radio. It's hard to figure out why. On his own, Ingram has proven to have enormously broad appeal, bringing in fans from different generations and different cultural backgrounds. Even without radio support, his club shows throughout the Southwest pack in fans who crowd the stage, sing along, and readily supply Ingram and his band with enough beers-and-shots to make sure no one gets left out of the party.

His reputation precedes him in other regions of the country as well: The reason Ingram regularly gets booked into the Exit/In, where he performs Thursday night, is because of the number of young, monied Texans who attend Vanderbilt and who eagerly and faithfully bring their friends and fraternity brethren to Ingram's high-time country show.

Expanding upon this kind of base would seem like a natural and easy business venture for a record label. Apparently, it's not. Nashville and country radio prefer their musical sentiments be presented in smooth, overtly sentimental packages, while Ingram's charm relies on gritty tales and rugged musical arrangements. And there's the rub: Radio is so locked into its formula that it's unwilling to broaden its scope, even when someone with proven grassroots appeal presents himself.

That may be why country radio is losing listeners too. But the Dixie Chicks--who also spent years honing their talent on the Texas club circuit--have shown that country fans will rush to record stores when exposed to something a little different from the current radio formula. Ingram may not fit country's mold of sensitive balladeers and plastic Hat Acts, but one look at the sales charts should indicate that there's not much interest in those kinds of pretty boys anymore. Sure, radio plays them all day long, but the sales numbers are still dismal.

"I think it all comes down to who's spending the money," Ingram says, speaking by telephone from his Dallas home. "They're not putting the money behind the kind of stuff that I do, so it's not what gets heard. You can't get a shot at the title unless you buy it. That doesn't mean it will work; it has to be good to stick--or to sell. The Dixie Chicks worked because they put a million dollars behind it, and because it was good and it was different. It wasn't a fluke."

At one point, Ingram appeared to be set up for such a big-buck promotional push. After his 1997 album Livin' or Dyin' attracted some radio play, Ingram's former record label, Rising Tide, decided to set up the young Texan for an all-out commercial attack. Livin' or Dyin' had been produced by musical renegades Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy; Ingram's second album was to be produced by Emory Gordy Jr., who's more accustomed to getting songs on country radio. Rising Tide wanted to find a middle ground that held onto Ingram's special characteristics but also shaped those talents in a style that might have a chance at broad-based airplay.

However, just as Ingram and Gordy were beginning work on the album, Universal Entertainment pulled the plug on Rising Tide Records and closed down the fledgling label. "It was like having a car crash," Ingram says. "Everything's moving fast, then all of a sudden it's not. It's kind of a shock, and the first thing you do is make sure you're OK. You check your limbs and vital signs and say, 'I'm OK, I'm cool.' Then six months later you look back and realize, 'Man, that was fucked up.' It messes with your mind."

Before long, Sony Entertainment stepped in with another offer. But rather than assign Ingram to one of its powerhouse divisions--such as Epic, Columbia, or Monument (home of the Dixie Chicks)--the young Texan was put onto the roster of Lucky Dog Records.

"Lucky Dog isn't set up to promote records to mainstream country radio," Ingram says, noting that the label is designed as a home for alternative-country rebels and older country acts like David Allan Coe and Waylon Jennings. "One good thing about that is they didn't try to change me. But I still believe the record I made could be played on mainstream radio. I'm not bitching about it, because that's useless energy. But I think if all the money and attention wasn't focused on stuff that was so slick, then we wouldn't need to be talking about it."

Ingram's songs would certainly provide a much-needed jolt of reality to country radio. "Biloxi," the opening cut on Hey You, is full of bravado and heart-tugging honesty. In a voice that bites off lines with barely restrained anger, Ingram confronts his father about the man's decision 10 years ago to leave his family behind in Houston and move to Biloxi, Miss., where he spent his nights cruising singles bars, partying, and chasing younger women.

"Where in the hell did you go?" Ingram snarls. "You left us all alone, I wasn't even 18." With a resonant guitar adding punch to his words, Ingram describes his father as a "kid out on the run" who "headed for the fun down in Biloxi." He figures his father wanted to escape his responsibilities and go someplace where he could "stay out all night long and never have hell to pay." In the final stanza, Ingram asks his father pointedly, "Did you really think you'd find more than you left behind back home in Houston, where we all felt the loss?"

That's a powerful scenario, and one that strikes a common chord running through many American families torn by divorce and betrayal. Ingram has other new songs with similarly gutsy storylines: "Inna From Mexico" tells of a Mexican immigrant who, at the encouragement of friends and family, leaves her daughter behind to seek a better life in America. Once she arrives, though, she finds that she's stuck in a dead-end job and depressed because she misses her family.

Elsewhere, Ingram offers plainspoken songs about relationships. Tunes like "Talk About," "Work This Out," "I Would," and "Hey You" sound like conversations between lovers, providing incisive details that illuminate universal themes of how men and women communicate and get along.

"I want to make albums that are song-driven," Ingram says. "The good thing about being on Lucky Dog is that I get to do the music I want exactly how I want to do it. I don't feel any constraints, and that's real important to me. That's what I'm focusing on for now--I want to make the best music I can. As for the rest of it, all I can do is hope for the best."

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