Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Jack Ingram became one of the most respected artists on the Texas music scene. His no-holds-barred sound caught the ears of Big Machine Records in Nashville, and he wound up topping Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart with “Wherever You Are.”
Future hits for the label included “Measure of a Man,” “Barefoot and Crazy” and the sarcastic “Love You,” and mainstream radio really seemed to take hold of Ingram and his sound. Then, shortly after the release of his 2010 single “Barbie Doll,” Ingram seemingly did one of the best disappearing acts in country music history.
So where has he been keeping himself?
“I didn’t go anywhere. I just wasn’t around,” he tells Billboard. “They say that things work out the way they’re supposed to. I really had to believe in that the last few years; the great part about getting a break that you didn’t know that you needed,” he said, discussing his label deal coming to an end. “When you’re with a label like that, there’s a program. You’re either with it or you don’t belong there. I had always thought, OK, we’ll do our thing, have some hits, and we’ll play ball. Then, I’ll do what I’m supposed to be doing. When it came time to make the next record, I wanted to do this and this and that. I was ready. But the label was, ‘No, we’re doing this.’ I thought, ‘No, No. That’s what we did to get in the door. This is to make my mark.’ When those two things are out of alignment, you’ve got to go. Especially when you’re dealing with someone who is so incredibly brilliant at what he does as [Big Machine boss] Scott Borchetta. Who am I to tell him that he is doing something wrong, because he ain’t,” he admits.
Being true to himself as an artist was a huge part of the equation. While he feels he made some good music for Big Machine, there’s other pages to him than what was being heard on the radio. “When you make a mark with a sound people have seen you do, and they come to you for that, if you start to have hits with something that is not authentic to you, you’re going to be wearing an outfit for the rest of your life, if you stay in that world. It takes a whole lot to say, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not all of me. This is me.’ People will look back and say, ‘But we liked that dude.’ It’s kind of a matter of staying and doing the same thing record after record — that just doesn’t fit my sensibilities of why I got into this business.”
Ingram is back with Midnight Motel, out Friday, his first album since 2009’s Big Dreams and High Hopes. He admits that some fans might prefer the Ingram they heard on the radio, and that’s fine with him. But he had to strike a different chord.
“I’m OK with some people hating my records,” he said freely. “I hate some Willie Nelson records. I hate some Neil Young records. I hate some Bruce Springsteen records. I love them because they are willing to fail. They are willing to put a record out that is true to their vision of who they are. To me, that’s what being an artist is. It’s being ballsy enough to say, ‘Hey, man, I’m going to do what is right for my art.’”
He knows that approach isn’t for everyone. “I’ll lose some people and gain some people along the way. That’s not the way that you make it in mainstream country. You make the records people know you for, and you just wash and repeat. That’s cool for some artists, because they don’t have the same conversations inside their head as I do. I had to learn that. So when I took a break from making records, I told myself, ‘You have a chance now to take a breather.’ People have a short attention span. They’ll remember who I am. But if I take a little bit of a break right now, I can be whoever the f— I wanna be. I can make music my way and be the best me possible. I can tell you who I am, and you can decide whether you like me or not. That took a while,” he admits.
One of the highlights of the new album is the wistful “It’s Always Gonna Rain,” which he co-wrote with red-hot tunesmith Lori McKenna.
“She is such a great writer,” Ingram says of McKenna. “I love what she is doing, because she is doing her work on Earth and she’s connecting with people in a large way. I think that’s very hard to do. I loved her records before she started getting a lot of cuts. I respect the hell out of her, and I love her sensibility,” he says, adding that the song stemmed from a real-life situation, as well as one woman’s reaction to it. “I was coming up to write with her a few years ago when there was an epic drought in Texas. I remember that Texas Monthly did an entire issue about rainfall, and the article talked about how there would be one epic rainfall once a decade since they recorded rainfall in Texas. They went around the state interviewing people that were affected by the drought. They kept going back to this 94-year-old woman, who was a spitfire. She said she had watched her dad, granddad and great granddad, as well as her sons, daughters and grandchildren — every time there was a drought, they would go down to the diner and pray for rain, then they would go to the banker and pray for rain. From there, they would stare up at the sky the rest of the afternoon, and they’d all pray. The woman said, ‘I’ve always been worried about my family,’ but she looked up at the sky, and thought, ‘You know, it’s always gonna rain.’ Spiritual things come to you, sometimes, sideways. That hit me in a way that Bible verses don’t. This is real people going through this. I took it over to Lori, drank wine, and we wrote that song.”
With a new album and tour on the horizon, Ingram knows that he has answered the questions about the past seven years, but he jokes that he knows it will still come up for a while. He’s ready.
“I know everyone asks, ‘What happened to Jack Ingram?’ I’ve seen that all over online. I read those things all the time, and it doesn’t hurt my feelings, because I know it’s the reality of it. I’ve been busy writing songs, raising kids, and making records, so I mean, I haven’t been sitting still, but as far as real exposure for what I’m doing and having something new to talk about, it’s been a while. I just wanted to reach inside the Internet and say, ‘Hey, y’all, I’m right here. I haven’t gone anywhere. I’m just taking care of my sh–.’ It also feels great to have a record that I don’t have to truly explain. People are going to take what they are going to take from it. I think it’s going to be ultimately what the music says. That’s a new part of my career. I have never felt like that before. I just want to get out there, go play and say, ‘Here’s my record. Here’s a show. We have an experience together — one that you can’t download. You can’t do this without me, and I can’t do this without you. Nobody can have this experience alone.’ I can go out and play music for you, and if I do my job, it’s going to make you feel something that you don’t feel anywhere else in your life. If I’m right, then we’ll move on to the next thing.”