Jack Ingram likes to tell a story from the stage.
That's not a metaphor for his music, though many of his songs certainly qualify as stories. But he likes to tell an actual story when he performs. It goes something like this.
When Ingram got his start in the early 1990s, he played a couple different dives and bars. During those days, he'd introduce himself by saying, "My name is Jack Ingram and I play country music." During one of those shows, a man in the back heard that and responded. "Yeah? Prove it."
Years later, Ingram's career kept moving up. And his debut single with Big Machine Records, "Wherever You Are" kept heading down the chart (in a good way). And as he drove down the road, he passed by that very same venue where a fan implored he "prove it." At that moment, Bob Kingsley announced Ingram's as the No. 1 song in the country.
It's a hell of a story (I don't do it much justice; sorry Jack). But what happened since is a better story. Earlier this year, he released his eighth studio album, Midnight Motel, to high praise. Today, on his 46th birthday, let's take a look at the long and winding road that got him there.
Getting There the Hard Way
Just about any artist who signed a deal with a label will tell you that's when the real work begins. It's a tough pill to swallow when that deal comes in 2005 and you've been at it since 1992. But that's where 34-year-old Ingram found himself when he signed with upstart independent label Big Machine already five records into his career.
The relationship proved fruitful for both parties, which is not always the way that story goes. But Ingram's "Wherever You Are" became the first No. 1 song for both him and the label. His 2007 album This Is It made it all the way to No. 4 on the country albums chart. And in 2008, he won the Academy of Country Music's award for Top New Male Vocalist, beating Luke Bryan and Jake Owen to get there.
In accepting the award, a truly grateful 37-year-old Ingram told the crowd, "Live it; own it. Dreams come true; never give up." All things considered, the partnership worked.
But as fate would have it, Ingram's foray into the mainstream had only one more chapter: 2009's Big Dreams & High Hopes. The record did okay by commercial standards and avoided any notion of a "sophomore slump" by producing a few slick singles like "Barefoot and Crazy" and a collaboration with Dierks Bentley, Little Big Town, Randy Houser, James Otto and The Lost Trailers called "Barbie Doll."
But even then, Big Machine was going all in on Taylor Swift and, eventually, a shift to an image that includes artists like Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett and Brantley Gilbert. "New Artist" Jack already kind of seemed like the senior citizen in the group with his straightforward, early-2000s brand of country. Ingram parted ways with Big Machine in 2011.
Checking in to the Acoustic Motel
The next 5 years found Ingram embracing his independent past. He began a YouTube series called "Jack Ingram's Acoustic Motel." Basically, he performed a new song every week. New music, old music, somebody else's music. Just music. A simple concept, but one that was instrumental in helping him stay connected with his fans.
"The best part about it is it's such a great way to stay relevant with your fans, to stay in front of them and to turn other people on to what you're doing with just a keystroke," he told The Boot in 2011. He also got to pay tribute to his heroes, like Kris Kristofferson, whom he mentions regularly in interviews and stories as a constant point of inspiration.
That series also actually helped Ingram embrace his role as an elder statesman in the Texas music scene. He eventually adapted the "Acoustic Motel" series for The Texas Music Scene TV show.
The opportunity allowed him to shine a light on artists out of Texas. It turns out Ingram developed a pretty good ear for new talent after all those years on the scene. A big factor in picking somebody for the show? They've got to have that desire to control their careers, much like he has.
"There's a lot more artists who are active in their careers right now," Ingram told me a little while back when I interviewed him for an article focusing on songwriting. "They see a glimpse of hope that they don't have to sell themselves out to see success, and that's incredible."
Ingram also took the time to focus on philanthropy. He partnered with former University of Texas football coaching legend Mack Brown and Oscar-winning Texan Matthew McConaughey to form "Mack, Jack and McConaughey," an organization that has far raised more than $5 million for Texas charities since forming in 2013.
A New Album Seven Years in the Making
While Ingram sank back into the Texas music scene like an old pair of your favorite jeans, he notably refrained from releasing any new music. But that doesn't mean he wasn't stewing in it, writing constantly.
"There was something inside telling me to create some distance between what I've done and what I'm going to do," Ingram told the Houston Press. "I really needed to take a breath and think of how I was going to change gears. When you're in the pop-country world, you have to focus on the same thing and sound the same way for too long."
When he announced a new forthcoming album, Midnight Motel, in early 2016, folks were actually a bit surprised. Not many artists who win an ACM in 2008 and have a top-10 single in 2009 wait seven years to release their next record. But not many Texas country artists focus on the craft of storytelling quite like Ingram nowadays.
Ingram actually partnered with the highly respectable Rounder Records (Rush, Blackberry Smoke, Sean McConnell) to release Midnight Motel. He recorded the record at the world-famous Arlyn Studios in Austin, Texas, renting out the nearby Hotel St. Cecilia as base camp for inspiration. Most of the tunes come from Ingram's writing between 2009 and 2014.
They're raw and unpolished. The polar opposite of his Big Machine releases. If he didn't *say* he loved Kristofferson enough throughout his career, he certainly shows it on Midnight Motel, which came out in August.
In the opening line for "Nothing To Fix," Ingram perhaps wraps up his entire resurgence. "Don't try to sell what you wouldn't buy," he sings.
Now, don't mistake Ingram for a man who doesn't love pop country. But only the kind that really means something. "When heart and soul meets hook and melody, that's the holy grail," he says. "But most of the time these days it's just hooks and melodies."
To that extent, you can still find Ingram ingrained in the mainstream. In fact, he wrote a song with Miranda Lambert for her upcoming album The Weight Of These Wings. Perhaps a bit of payback, seeing as Ingram's 2002 album Electric inspired Lambert to seek out the producer Frank Liddell. And we all know that was a good decision.
And now that Ingram's completed his resurgence in the world of music, we can expect much more music much more regularly. In fact, he's already got the follow-up in the pipeline. Which is music to our ears for a Texan who firmly holds a place as a forefather of Texas country.