A free spirit goes around the world to find his home in Texas
Texas native Jack Ingram is the rare songwriter who easily translates to larger audiences as a major artist while maintaining the aura of his writing heroes like Willie Nelson and Willis Alan Ramsey as an enigmatic and sometimes wily and contrary personality. His latest album, Midnight Motel, is Ingram's first since Big Dreams & High Hopes in 2009, which Ingram made for the very-Nashville oriented label Big Machine. But where as Big Machine's idea of promotion was to put Ingram in front of a world-record-breaking series of interviews (215) Midnight Motel is about the concept of freedom and was duly recorded live in the studio. Ingram was the Academy of Country Music's Top New Male Vocalist in 2007 and now a decade later, he's more assured about his art even if the music business is still trying to adjust to the new reality of a scattered and distracted audience.
"It was really important to me at this point in my life to avoid thinking about any commercial decisions about the music," said Ingram in a press release about the album. "Every night after my kids went to bed, I'd go into my music room and stay in there until about three or four, just working out the songs like I did at the beginning of my career. I wanted to bring people into that space with me." Last fall, Ingram brought his Epiphone Masterbilt Century De Luxe to Nashville for the Americana Festival for a beautiful rendition of "Trying." We spoke with Ingram during a recent songwriting trip to Nashville to work with fellow Epi fan Todd Snider. Watch Jack in action and visit his website for his touring schedule.
Thanks for speaking with Epiphone.com, Jack. It's great to see you again.
My pleasure! I just got done watching Hacksaw Ridge so I'm all amped up.
Are you finding some similarities? Songwriting as hand to hand combat?
It really is, man. I didn't realize it until the last couple years looking back. When you make a record that you really dig, songs that you're really proud of that you wrote, it's tough. I would have to really get geared up mentally to write those kinds of songs again. You don't realize it when you're writing them what a strain you're putting on your psyche. It's weird. But talking about that being "hard" is like talking about getting injuries in golf (laughs) You're thinking: How hard can it be? I know it sounds silly but it hurts to write sometimes.
Midnight Motel is meant to be enjoyed as an album. A lot of artists are more focused on singles. Do you still enjoy the album format?
Yeah man I do. It's strange to be at this point in the music business when I'm having to wrap my head around releasing bits and pieces of a whole thing. People keep talking about doing EPs and A-sides and B-sides of singles and I'm cool with the concept. It's like the Willie Nelson songs--"Sad Songs and Waltzes Aren't Selling This Year." It's kind of the same thing. Sorry man, nobody wants to read your novel. Today, For Whom The Bell Tolls or Ernest Hemingway would be passé. It's like: what?
Everybody loves great poets and everybody loves short stories but great writers were made on the novel. And it's the same way with music. Great artists became known because they had a hit song and that forced you to listen to all the songs. And when all the rest of the songs were better than the single, then you thought: I can dig in for a long time here. I don't know what it's gonna take. Who knows?
When you go in the opposite direction, there is more space for you to breath as an artist so to speak.
Yeah, I do feel that way at certain times. There's a music blogger--Bob Lefsetz-- Howard Stern is a fan. He's got a huge audience. He's a well-known guy with a big opinion. He'll talk about how artists who make records are stupid and they should get over it. Black and white TV is not coming back. Move on. And I'm like go ahead and keep saying that. Because that's a short sided view.
For me, if I go do great work no matter what format, it's gonna stand out. When I was growing up, 111 million people watched the finale of M*A*S*H*. You know? That will never happen again. That's the kind of numbers that the Super Bowl gets now. I remember the Breaking Bad finale was on. Everybody was talking about it. You couldn't go the whole day without hearing about it. And like 2-1/2 million watched it. So it's like, ok man. But Breaking Bad is better TV. Musicians will catch up to it or the business will catch up to it. It should not affect my work. I can be aware of it but your expectations need to be what they are. Brian Cranston is doing just fine.
So Midnight Motel is more of a literal record of where you are as an artist. That seems like the opposite of your Nashville experience with Big Machine. Do you see Midnight Motel as more of a blueprint of how you'll be working in the future?
First of all I love Nashville. Guy Clark lived here for 40 years. You don't change who you are just because you live in Nashville unless you allow Nashville to change you. And that's just not the kind of artist I ever was. I had a good sense of how Nashville was a tool from the minute I got here. And I never wanted to move here because I wanted to succeed to badly. And I knew if I moved here I would figure out what the game was being played and I'd play it. I don't wanna do that and so I didn't. Then when I did have those years on Big Machine, I knew what I was doing. I knew the risks I was taking. But I also knew there were lines I can't cross and wouldn't. Being a complete jackass just to sell records is like committing suicide. I wouldn't do it. There are lines I didn't think about because I knew I'd never cross them. And with that in mind, I was always lucky. I also know who I am and what I'm on this Earth to do.
When you have a career like mine--you get tired of preaching to the choir: Am I a tree falling in the forest: did I make a sound? Willie Nelson had a huge audience. Waylon Jennings had a huge audience. Jerry Jeff Walker was in the mainstream. Now culturally things are totally different. But in my mind-you can make great records but if no one hears you it doesn't matter. You know what I mean? I have to make a career in order to make a career that matters. It's like I had to go all around the world in order to just come back home. I've lived in Austin for 15 years.
So to answer your question--is Midnight Motel where I'm gonna remain? In the same respect, all my records are the next step. They are all connected if anyone wants to look at them as a continuum. They are all very focused for a reason. When I was having hits, they may not fit stylistically with the people who like Sturgill Simpson but I couldn't have made Midnight Motel had I not been a dancing monkey for a few years. I wouldn't have had a knee jerk reaction and written the songs on Midnight Motel if I hadn't had a bad taste in my mouth.
Some songwriters find it difficult to use the studio as an artistic tool. Do you enjoy making records?
No man I love the studio. I don't ever feel uncomfortable. It's almost like playing a live gig. The microphone and the red lights, recording and all that--to me it's like an intimate setting with my audience. I know exactly what I'm playing for. I've always approached music with not a specific audience in mind but that it's for somebody. I'm not just doing this for myself. So the studio is a natural extension of that. Here's the microphone and it's going to reach somebody. I kind of go in and dedicate myself to what I'm doing. It's always been really fulfilling. But I'm not technical and so I rely on great engineers to help me develop a language so I can tell them what I'm hearing in my head in a way they understand.
You're at an age now where younger songwriters are looking at you as mentor just as you looked up to Willie Nelson or Guy Clark. Do you see a bit of your younger self in younger songwriters?
I do my best to be really open with young songwriters. A lot of times when someone comes up to me and says: "let's write together," they really just want to talk (laughs). That's cool, 'cause I wanted the same thing and I could never find anyone to get some insight. You know how people--when they get older--they always @#$@ on the kids? They say: "Aw kids, nowadays... they don't care about the same things we did!" No, man, that's not true.
I remember people feeling that way about me. People talk about songwriting like it's so mysterious. And it is mysterious and it makes you feel like you're in some foreign land that you're trying to navigate. But what you don't know is truly ignorance--it's not for a lack of passion or lacking the desire to be educated. So I was with a songwriter the other night--me and John Randall were out having a beer. And this guy came up and started doing that thing you know which is great and flattering and I love it. They found me and they said "Oh My God!" and did that thing and talked about how much the love us.
But we started talking and (songwriter) Willis Alan Ramsey came up. I mean this kid seemed to have done his homework. He knew who we were--he must know something about this. He didn't know who Willis Alan Ramsey was! Now that would be a perfect opportunity for guys like me to say: "These @#$#@ kids man..." But instead we hauled him over to John Randall's office and turned Ramsey's record on to "11." He kept trying to talk and we shoved his head in the speaker and said "No! If you say this is what you want to be, then listen to this record and then we'll talk."
So it was kind of a moment to say this guy seems genuine--somebody messed him up by not letting him know who Willis Alan Ramsey was, so we're gonna fix that real quick. And to what you're saying I think kids are truly interested. And my advice is to go see what the best entertainers did if you want to be an entertainer. The same with songwriting. I guarantee you they are interested in stuff they don't know about yet. It would be easy for me to build myself up but I remember being that age and I was dying for someone to help me.
Have you been enjoying your Masterbilt Century De Luxe on the road?
Absolutely! It makes me play differently. I've never spent a lot of time with those types of guitars where there's so much space between the body and the strings down there by the bridge. It's a trip because I'm such a banger. I'm not very technical about anything including my guitar playing. It's almost like I use guitars as a percussion instrument. But it's been really cool. Most of the time when you have a guitar like that--at least in my experience--it's hard for those older guitars to really ring out and cut through in a way that can command an audience unless you're just really adept at playing serious being a serious player. So for me, that guitar has the old and the new in it. I have to play differently to make it sound right for me but I can get where it needs to go for my shows to be a strummer's guitar. It's a songwriter's guitar. And I dig it. And of course the electronics on it make it a lot easier for me. A lot of those older guitars you can't get them where you want them through a PA. With the Masterbilt Century, you can get it exactly where you need it through the PA and the monitors but also have the ability to do new things. It's really cool for me. I love it.