Jack Ingram has become such a darling of the alternative country world that there are probably a lot of people who lump him in with the Austin crowd.
But Ingram is from Dallas, a city he considers to be different in every way.
"Dallas has a real heavy alternative rock scene," says Ingram, "Austin seems to be more about country-influenced rock. Dallas is much more of a city city. It has a New York kind of feel. There's a lot of big business going on. Austin is much more laid back."
One reason Ingram may be lumped in with the Austin crowd is that he is greatly influenced in every way by Jerry Jeff Walker. Walker wasn't from Austin (or even from Texas), but he moved there in the early '70's and was a major force in the rise of that city's "progressive country" scene.
Not only does Ingram often sound uncannily like the young Walker vocally, but his stylistic range - moving from hard-core honky-tonk to folksier numbers that are almost spoken rather than sung - echoes Jerry Jeff's as well.
His eponymous first album included "Pick Up The Tempo," a Willie Nelson song often associated with Walker (and also included a song by Robert Earl Keen Jr., another Texan who has evoked Walker's sound). His second album, "Lonesome Question," includes Walker's composition "My Old Man."
On his latest album, "Livin' Or Dyin'," Ingram performs a duet with Walker, and also includes "Rita Ballou," a song written by Guy Clark - another veteran of that same Austin scene whose connections with Walker run deep.
Ingram is open about Walker's effect. "I listened to him forever when I was growing up." He's not just Jerry Jeff Walker Jr. though.
"I also listened to Willie Nelson. As I got older, I listened to rock music. Throw my influences in a bag and shake them up."
But his resemblance to Walker goes beyond mere sound. One of Walker's earliest albums was called "Drifting Way Of Life," and Ingram seems to have taken that to heart.
"I loved music. I started playing guitar and writing songs in college," says Ingram when asked when he first decided to become a musician. "But I was planning to be 'nothing.' I was 18. I hadn't really planned on anything. Right after that, I figured I could get up on stage and play."
Ingram walked into a Dallas club called Adair's, auditioned, and was given a weekly gig as a solo act. "It was lots of fun and I was having a good time. I didn't really think of it much past that. People started liking it, so I made a record. They liked that, so I made another record. I didn't really have any pressure. I was just enjoying it."
"I played about six months alone, then I started dabbling with another guitar, then a bass player. Then six months later, we added a drummer. So, it was about a year before I had a full band, and another six months to a year before we made a record.
Like Walker, Ingram has been known to take a more than occasional drink. In fact, Ingram has become rather notorious for his wild shows, which sometimes include such activities as challenging audience members to chug-a-lug contests.
Ingram's first three albums were distributed through Dallas-based Crystal Clear Sound, which has also handled another locally popular act, The Dixie Chicks. Ingram describes them as "more a distribution company than a label." The artists get their albums into stores nationally while still retaining complete artistic control.
The third album, "Live At Adair's" was then picked up by Rising Tide, a small label handled by Universal (the distributing umbrella for the MCA label and its subsidiaries).
"Livin' Or Dyin" is the first album Ingram actually recorded for the label. For production, he turned to Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy (Kennedy being primarily the engineer).
On a couple of the album's tracks, Ingram seems to sound more like Steve Earle than Jack Ingram. Asked about this, Ingram says "People have always said I sound like Steve Earle. That's why I first started listening to him, because people were telling me that."
"Earle was definitely a presence in the studio. He allowed us to do what we do. I wanted to use my own band. I've always thought making a record should be about letting it breathe, getting it live, then not changing a lot. (Earle's) major influence was in arranging the songs, cutting some solo sections out, making it tight."
Two tracks, Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Dallas" and Ingram's own "I Can't Leave You" feature production gimmicks. The former sounds like a scratchy 78, while the latter features a fading in and out vocal that sometimes sounds as if it's coming through a megaphone, Rudy Vallee style.
Of "Dallas," he says "When you're doing a cover, especially one that already has a definitive version - Joe Ely's - you have to something different. We recorded it in mono, not stereo, and used old RCA ribbon mikes to get that 'old' effect. We brought in a dude to lay down scratches from a record. He played a scratchy record, recorded the sound and added it to our track."
"On "I Can't Leave You," Ray Kennedy just pushed a button when we were listening to the playback. He created it as we recorded it. We recorded it regular, and he created the effects."
These two tracks may remind some old-timers of a late sixties album by hippie country-rockers Moby Grape. Their opus included the ultimate gimmick of making the listener get up, go over to the turntable, and change the speed to 78 RPM for one track. (This was a particularly bad idea for a group whose audience consisted almost entirely of people too stoned to move.) Of course Ingram, like most of his generation, has never heard, or even heard of, Moby Grape.
Even though Ingram is intent on making music his own way, he's not "alternative" by choice. "In June, I'm going to visit mainstream country stations trying to get some play (for his second single "Flutter"). I think it can work. It worked for Dwight Yoakam and Mary Chapin (Carpenter) and The Mavericks. I feel we're not that far off."
In the meantime, Ingram has to settle for exposure to mainstream audiences via CMT. "Our first video (for "I'm Not Me") was in medium rotation. A lot of people have seen it and commented on it." He expects the "Flutter" video to get similar support.
He's also happy with his label's efforts. "For me, being at a smaller label definitely helps. These guys are more dedicated to finding other ways to sell records, rather than just depending on radio."
Yet, even in his own home of Dallas, where he has a solid following, Ingram has not been able to crack through. "Public stations play me. There's one that's Americana 24 hours a day. One of the guys from one of the mainstream stations came out to my show. We sold out one of the biggest clubs in town. You'd think that would set off an alarm 'we're missing something'." But it didn't, and if Ingram can't get played locally how easy will it be to get played elsewhere?
But Ingram seems undaunted by this. He's having fun making his music and writing songs. Unlike the normal situation of more touring making it harder for him to write songs, Ingram says "I actually write more now. I've co-written with some people I've enjoyed, but I like writing alone."