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Entertainment News

Sunday, 23 December, 2007 11:40 PM

CMA: Jack Ingram Ponders Life's Lessons on 'This Is It'

PHOTO BY DAVID MCCLISTER

Big Machine recording artist Jack Ingram.

By Bob Doerschuk
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

"This world is tough and we all know it," said Texas firebrand Jack Ingram, unapologetically. "Music is my touchstone. For me, songs that turned a line never made me cry, but songs about people's lives."

His voice, raspy from throwing his whole soul at what he sings and then talking about it to anyone who'll listen, drifted off. He didn't need to complete the thought. It was, after all, obvious.

The truth is that with his first No. 1 for last year's "Wherever You Are," stints opening for Brooks & Dunn, Sheryl Crow and Brad Paisley, his upset win of the CMT "Wide Open Video of the Year" for the Top 10 single "Love You," anointment from Mediabase as Most Played New Artist of 2006, and This Is It, his breakout Big Machine Records album, debuting in the Top 5, whatever Ingram is doing seems to be working.

It's hard to believe it began with a friend's father's copy of Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger, which Ingram heard when he was just 17. "That was all we listened to for two straight weeks," he remembered. "Very simple but very, very real - and the more you listen, the more that stuff cuts through all the circumstances, right to the basic emotion."

Distilling the essences of life has been Ingram's standard since he signed with Rising Tide in 1996 and later with Sony/Lucky Dog Records, which in 1999 released his album Hey You featuring the snarling "Mustang Burn" as well as "Biloxi," a jagged song of reckoning from an abandoned teenage son to a returning father. But this once brash young man, now a tawny-haired guitar slinger, is seeking broader truths.

It's not so much that he's mellowed. Rather, he's lived and, in living, seems to have found a deeper place from which to write and record.

"The thing I experienced when I heard Red Headed Stranger, or Born to Run, or Guy Clark for the first time is that sense of immediacy, the realness of it," he explained. "I want people to experience that when they hear my records."

Certainly his more recent hit single, "Measure of a Man," moves beyond the bitterness of "Biloxi" toward resolution as the song's hero realizes that wisdom can be achieved by striking out on his own, putting his faith in another and knowing there are many paths and truths on the way to adulthood. It also proves that growing up and settling down don't necessarily mean giving up one's edge.

Always a Texas maverick, Ingram drew from Nashville's top session players for This Is It, a move akin to burning the Lone Star flag in certain circles back home. "How do you go in there without walking over the line?" he remembered thinking. "These are the best players in the world, but what I want is their emotion. If I could get them to feel it, then I knew I was going to be fine."

Whether embracing the complicated, sexually tangled triangle of the Oklahoma band Hinder's "Lips of an Angel" or the raving kiss-off "Love You" (which means anything but), Ingram found ways to incinerate a dozen songs about a fully engaged life. It's not preaching, nor is it empty swagger; it is, simply, the view from where Ingram stands.

"I first saw Jack when Rising Tide brought a bunch of us out to a showcase in Arizona," said Lon Helton, Country Aircheck publisher and host of "Westwood One's CMT Country Countdown USA." "And you could tell then, it wasn't a matter of if but when. He always knew how to connect with people. It was just a matter of getting him on a label where they understood what he did and had the time to devote to getting it across to the audience."

Until then and to this day, Ingram has roamed between what's considered mainstream Country and the roots high ground that artists such as Crow inhabit.

"Sheryl's audience reacted exactly like mine did for the 10 years previous to this current step," Ingram said. "Her audience buys Johnny Cash's American Recordings, and I think when they saw us, they were connecting with that part of what we do. They recognize the roots of my music from the most basic places."

And also the most personal places: This Is It includes "Ava Adele," a pretty ballad that seems like the ultimate love song to a woman with the power to bewitch. In a way, that's true, since Ingram wrote it about his daughter.

"I know," he said, laughing over the fact that even angry young men can embrace sentimental realities. "It's funny coming from the guy who wrote 'Biloxi,' the guy who used to make fun of those kinds of themes. But I think I'm talking a lot about commitment and being there for your people. That is pretty universal, whether you're blue collar, white collar or no collar."

That willingness to evolve, to embrace life's deeper moments, intensifies what Ingram does.

That seems to be true for Ingram, whose career has unwound over pretty extreme peaks and valleys. There were times, especially in the wake of his Sony/Lucky Dog deal evaporating, when he had to walk on faith, believing there was something worth pursuing just around the bend.

"Every time the transmission blew, the engine broke down or the gig sucked, there'd be two people who got it," he recalled, speaking with the vehemence that informs so much of his music. "Two out of the five folks some nights - and those people kept me coming back, playing music, believing in the dream.

"I saw so many folks who were on the radio who didn't care like that, selling millions of records - and they didn't mean it. Sitting outside my mechanic's office, I remember thinking, 'I am not going to be that guy.' For the most part, it was passion, remembering those two people. But that kept me playing when there was no reason.

"And I knew I was right," he insisted, recognizing now that his hope wasn't grounded in illusion. Then he laughed and admitted, with a rakish turn in his voice, "That's where the spite comes in. If it kills me, I'm gonna prove I'm right."

On the Web: www.jackingram.net

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