With each record he releases, Jack Ingram says he's coming closer to a classic.

Gimme a Honky-Tonk Man 

With each record he releases, Jack Ingram says he's coming closer to a classic.

The only Texan campaigning harder than George W. Bush right now is Dallas resident Jack Ingram. The songwriter will play close to 170 dates this year to support last autumn's Hey You, his fifth and best album. But unlike pollsters and convention delegates, Ingram operates on instinct, refusing to be programmed.

"Steve (Earle) and Ray (Kennedy) produced my last record, and they taught me that there's only one rule in this business," Ingram says by telephone from a vacation spot he doesn't name. "You make the record and you let the label sell it. And so far, I haven't been forced to put anything on a record that I didn't want on there."

Ingram's previous two discs were released on the ironically named Rising Tide label, which sank last year. Now distributed by Sony, Ingram is quick to defuse any suspicion that he has sold out. "We support the tour ourselves," he says. "If something sparks, we have a huge label behind us. That's why I'm with them. If I put out a record on an indie label and something happens, I might sell 100,000 copies. I'd love to sell like that. But if something happens and you're on a major label, if you get lucky, you'll have that chance to sell a shitload of albums. But I haven't had to give up anything to be here."

In fact, Ingram was savvy enough to buy up 10,000 copies of his Rising Tide releases for a buck apiece so he could continue selling them at shows. "That's still a livable profit," he says. Sony bought the rights to Ingram's first two albums for reissue. In five years, Ingram will own the masters for the Rising Tide albums.

By then, he likely will have advanced considerably. Ingram hasn't changed his sound much since his first album; influenced by Texan songwriting gurus Ray Wylie Hubbard and Robert Earl Keen, as well as by Earle, his thriftily arranged country rock and honky-tonk blues songs are hard-hitting but sometimes endearingly soft-hearted. Like his mentors, he sounds as though he was born with a guitar in hand and all the right chips on his shoulder. But also like them, he didn't emerge from the Texas dirt fully formed.

"For any artist, I imagine it's tough to listen back to your first record," Ingram says. "I listen back to mine, and friends and people who know about it will seem to love it. But after that is when I started trying to figure out what kind of records I wanted to make. But you can't ever replace the first 20 songs you wrote. For whatever reason, the motivation to write at that time in your life is completely different from what it is later. You can't replace that rawness."

Now Ingram says he approaches songwriting two ways: "The one kind of song I tend to write comes from the gut. The other, which is just as valid and just as good but different, is crafted. 'Feel Like I'm Falling in Love' was crafted. It came from the same place, but it was put together word by word. But we made sure that it was right and came from a true place. To some extent, I rely on feedback from my drummer, Pete Coatney, who's been with me since 1994. But I trust my instincts, and I know when I'm getting close to something. It's like falling in love when you write a song. You just know."

Ingram managed to regain that gutbucket urgency on Livin' or Dyin', the album Kennedy and Earle produced. Taking advantage of the rapport Ingram achieved with his band the Beat-Up Fords (named for a song on his first disc), that album was a leap forward brought fully to bear on Hey You.

"I think I just called Steve," Ingram says. "I've never been afraid to hand someone one of my albums and say, 'Hey, man, here's my record.' And it was real simple. I asked Steve who he thought I should play with for the album. I said, 'My band,' and he said that's what he was thinking too. That's the only answer I wanted to hear. It was a simple thing, but a monumental experience, especially since making the jump from an indie label to a major can be really daunting."

Earle and Kennedy coached Ingram about what to expect during the transition. They warned him that he would hear well-intentioned promises that his artistic life was about to hit the fast lane, that stardom was imminent. "That stuff's a bunch of bullshit," Ingram says, paraphrasing his producers. "Steve and Ray both went through that, and they said that while you're being told all these things, you have to remember that even though labels aren't necessarily malicious, they are a business trying to sell a product and sell it easier."

Ingram, though, is a music lover whose allegiances weren't bought as a consumer but were absorbed as fan. "I remember the first time I heard Jerry Jeff Walker. I'd snuck into a concert in Spring, Texas, to hear Ray Wylie Hubbard. Both of them blew me away. I haven't lost the excitement I felt at that, and it's what I want to bring to my work, the excitement of turning someone on to what I'm doing. There's always one person who got drug along to the show and liked it, or read a review and came out, or whatever, and they get knocked out and come up to me after the show saying, 'Oh, my God.' If I can make somebody feel the way I feel, that's the best."

"I also remember listening to Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger on headphones for the first time," he adds. "To make a record like that is what drives me. It's the chase for me. That's what keeps me going. Every time I make a record, I have the opportunity to make a record like that. I'm proud of the last two records, but it's not for me to judge. I walk away each time thinking I'm getting closer."

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