NEW YORK -- Just who is Jack Ingram anyway? The world at large knows him best as the hitmaker who came seemingly out of nowhere in 2005 to soar to the top of the country charts with the big, bold single "Wherever You Are."
Sure, some folks are aware that Ingram's "overnight success" came after a decade of nose-to-the-grindstone work as a gritty, Steve Earle-inspired (and, earlier in his career, an Earle-produced) country rocker. But even they may not be aware that the Texan's formative years were spent soaking up the sounds of legendary song poets like Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver and Kris Kristofferson. Coming off a five-year string of Top 40 hits at mainstream country radio, Ingram has decided that it's time to let his balladeer side show with the Acoustic Motel tour.
Named after and inspired by his 2005 solo acoustic live album, the tour finds Ingram leaving his boisterous band, his rock 'n' roll trappings and even some of his hits behind, going it alone onstage with just a microphone and a well-weathered acoustic guitar for company.
His Monday night (March 29) show at New York's newish, chic City Winery -- a spacious, split-level Soho supper club full of dark wood and dimly-lit tables -- was a high-profile stop on Ingram's soul-baring sojourn. In appropriately unfussy attire -- black T-shirt, blue jeans and boots -- Ingram stepped unceremoniously onto a blue-lit stage that looked like a set from a play, his jacket draped over a coat rack placed conspicuously close to center stage.
After opening with the insistent "Hey You," he commented that he'd written a set list for the evening. A fan cried out encouragingly, "Just be yourself," to which Ingram replied, "I tried for years to be somebody else. It didn't work out so well." Adding that he spends "all year playing songs I have to play because they were hits on the radio," he said this tour allows him to be "doing exactly what I want to do, exactly the way I want to do it." With that, he launched into the new, still-unrecorded "Stand Up," an inspirational song about taking your destiny into your own hands.
Moving on to "Stuff That Works," written by his hero Guy Clark, Ingram dedicated the song to its author, announcing that he'd also be contributing to a Clark tribute album due out later this year. By the time he dove into the intensely personal "Biloxi," about being abandoned by his father, he had the intimate crowd in the palm of his hand after offering a back story about embracing songwriting for the first time at age 17 in the wake of his father's departure.
"You've gotta write about what you know," he said amiably. "The only thing I really knew at the time was that my dad was an asshole." But Ingram immediately offers another perspective by introducing "Measure of a Man" as "Biloxi Part II -- The Reconciliation," written after he'd become a husband and father himself.
Even working without a net, delivering these emotionally-loaded tunes, Ingram remained the consummate showman, keeping the crowd smiling between the tears. Leading a singalong on the chorus of "Keep On Keepin' On," he followed the audience's first attempt by observing, "That'll do for a wine joint. Now, just for a second, pretend it's a beer joint!" Later on, he acknowledged his relief at being able to play his songs sans the stadium-size posing of a "big rock show where I jump up and down like a monkey."
Ingram also seemed to appreciate the ability to trot out quirky tunes that never came anywhere near the charts, like his tongue-in-cheek revenge song "Mustang Burn," dedicated "with my apologies" to his one-time rival Robert Earl Keen, and his Todd Snider collaboration "Barbie Doll," a rough 'n' rowdy crowd-pleaser about attractive airheads that Ingram has recorded twice.
Leading into "Wherever You Are," he told the audience about his tradition of declaring, "My name is Jack Ingram, and I play country music" at every show. Soon after, he kicked off his boots and socks before tearing into an encore of the raucous "Barefoot and Crazy," all the while acknowledging, "This is an upscale joint." In that moment of freedom and abandon, it became crystal clear just who Jack Ingram really is. He's a rocker. He's a troubadour. He's a chart-scaling, larger-than-life Nashville star. His name is Jack Ingram, and he plays country music.