After releasing a dozen albums in as many years, Jack Ingram now stands at the brink of mainstream stardom -- and he likes it. The delay was mainly a basic misunderstanding, the Texas-based singer-songwriter says.
Having recorded for a variety of labels large and small, Ingram's first No. 1 single, "Wherever You Are," arrived in 2006 on Big Machine Records, an indie imprint whose roster includes Taylor Swift, one of his current tourmates on Brad Paisley's Bonfires and Amplifiers tour. Ingram recently released This Is It, his second Big Machine project, which contains his current single and music video, "Measure of a Man."
Referring to his other record deals, Ingram tells CMT.com, "I just think there was a misunderstanding earlier in my career about what my potential was or what I wanted. And I don't think I was very clear with people that I signed record deals with, so I take part of the blame.
"They thought I was cool, they thought I was great, but cool doesn't sell records necessarily. I don't think they knew that I cared about being commercially successful -- commercially successful meaning selling records. Willie Nelson is commercially successful, but he's not necessarily a commercial artist. When I signed with Big Machine, I was very clear with them about what I wanted my career to look like."
To many in Nashville, Ingram's alliance with Big Machine founder Scott Borchetta was an odd pairing. Prior to launching the label in 2005, Borchetta's stints as chief of the radio promotion departments at MCA and DreamWorks led to his well-deserved reputation as one of the most aggressive (and effective) record promoters to ever hit Music Row. He was known for securing a string of No. 1 singles for Reba McEntire and George Strait, among others, and orchestrating Toby Keith's return to country radio in 1999 with "How Do You Like Me Now?!"
With such a strong background in hit-driven country radio, it seemed unlikely that Borchetta would have gravitated toward Ingram's music. After all, Ingram's primary success had been confined to Texas, and only two of his prior singles ever charted. And neither one of those ever made it into the Top 50 of Billboard's country singles chart.
"Scott came down to Texas and saw me play in front of a couple of thousand people that got it in a big way," Ingram explains. "As he listened to the music, he realized that it wasn't music for Texas -- that I was a Texan making this music. There's a big difference in that. Whether he needed convincing or not, I don't know, but I think it became very clear to him that I am who I am. If I'm special or not, I am who I am. And because I know that and have my own identity, I can make music that shoots right down the middle, but it's gonna stand out because I am different."
Ingram says Texas musicians have acquired an unfair reputation for being difficult to deal with in business matters.
"I don't think it's true, but there is a perception that people from Texas won't play ball, that they don't want to fit it, that they don't want these things," he says. "And it's just not true. George Strait's done well. Willie did pretty well. Waylon did OK. Roy Orbison wasn't half bad. Lyle Lovett's done all right for himself. There are a lot of other examples of people from Texas who have gone on to great success. ... I understand what the perception is. And it's true that if you're making music strictly for Texans, that's not going to play in Peoria. But I'm not doing that. I never have."
In addition to his No. 1 for "Wherever You Are," Ingram's track record at Big Machine includes two other Top 20 singles, the euphemistic "Love You" and a cover version of rock band Hinder's "Lips of an Angel."
If Ingram has found commercial success, his songwriting hasn't lost its edge or attitude on the new album, as evidenced by "Great Divide," a song that vividly describes the sights and smells -- both good and bad -- of rural Texas. The imagery is underlined by the undeniable love he feels for the region.
"The song just flowed right out," he says. "It was like describing a picture of a place. It was a very emotional experience. I was letting all this stuff out that meant so much to me. I wrote it while I was driving."
Ingram may be extending his career to acting if the financing comes through for The Last Rites of Ransom Pride, a film written by fellow Texas singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard. Portraying the role of an outlaw in the early 1900s, Ingram was recently on the set in Austin with actor Gary Busey.
Noting the film is still in the early stages of development, Ingram explains, "I just found this out, but these days, they make a trailer to take to the studios. It's like a demo. There are some investors who are on the line, and they seem to be really interested. I'm fairly confident that it will get made."
Ingram isn't sure when Hubbard started work on the screenplay.
"He's been on a roll for the past 10 years, not coincidentally roughly the same amount of time he's been sober," he says with a laugh. "But, man, the dude's been writing like crazy. I always loved him, and everybody down in Texas loved him for his 'what might happen at a show' aspect, but he started making some just flat-out great records over the past 10 years."
As Ingram expands his audience through radio and video airplay and his work on Brad Paisley's tour, he's aware he's lost some of the fans who had been attending his club performances since the early '90s. However, he doesn't dwell on allegations that he's somehow sold his soul to Nashville.
"Yes, it bothers me," he says. "But for how long? ... It's a drag. I don't like it, but I certainly understand that it's going to happen. Hell, I've said the same thing about artists I liked, and then they took a direction that maybe I wasn't as approving of. But the fact is that only I know what my vision is and what my journey is and what my artist integrity is."
He's discussed the criticism with Pat Green, another Texas artist who has endured the same sort of comments.
"I called him when I was taking some heat for doing the Hinder song," Ingram says. "And he goes, 'Here's what I suggest you do: Take all that stuff, read it if you want, know what it says if you want and then put it where it belongs -- right in the trash can. That's about how important it is.' It's a good way to look at it.
"There's no getting away from people's opinions. That's part of what we do as artists. You put yourself out there and say, 'Judge me.' So don't be surprised when people do."