Life these days is good for Jack Ingram. The Austin, Texas-based songwriter is living on his terms and making the music that stirs his soul. Listeners and fans are thankful his muse has taken him down this path less taken.
On August 26, seven years to the day since the release of his most commercially successful record (Big Dreams & High Hopes) on Big Machine Records — which included the Top 10 hit “Barefoot and Crazy” — Ingram released his first batch of new songs. The result, Midnight Motel, features 11 choice cuts that moved Ingram when he wrote them; these are the types of songs that slowly creep into your soul and stir your emotions.
Every night, after his kids went to bed, Ingram would go into his music room and stay there until three or four in the morning, just working out the songs like he did at the beginning of his career. On the road, he stayed up well past midnight writing in motel rooms.
“I wanted to bring people into that space with me,” he says.
He wrote and recorded the songs for Midnight Motel independently before shopping it around, and found the perfect home on Rounder Records. The disc was cut with Ingram and the musicians recording live off the floor, huddled in the same room, with minimum overdubbing. Produced by fellow Texas singer-songwriter Jon Randall, the sessions also featured an all-star studio band that included guitarist Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan, Arc Angels), drummer Chad Cromwell (Neil Young, Dire Straits), bassist Robert Kearns, and keyboardist Bukka Allen from Ingram’s longstanding Beat Up Ford Band.
To understand the impetus — and inspiration — behind Midnight Motel, let’s flash back to 2008. Ingram was doing meet-and-greets with Kenny Chesney and touring with Brooks and Dunn. That same year, he was named Best New Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music, despite the fact that he’d already been rocking honky-tonks, theaters, and stadiums for a decade and a half. After toiling the gravel roads and lost highways of America, Ingram finally found the widespread commercial airplay he yearned. This mainstream success explains the long delay between recordings.
“The truth is this,” Ingram says, “in 2009, I had ‘Barefoot and Crazy’ out. It was a huge hit single, but it wasn’t a turntable single: it moved the needle at the radio station and people loved it, but it wasn’t the type of song that made people forget what they had to do and go buy the record. When that happened, I was working so hard to be in the mainstream of country music and to have singles on the radio. When that record came out, that song was my seventh or eighth single and I said, ‘I need to do something different.’”
Midnight Motel is definitely different. While not a concept album, there is a definite theme that ties all the tunes together. The songs speak to Ingram’s life journey, documenting the struggles and strife we all face. The barebones compositions build to the disc’s closer, “All Over Again,” which captures the essence of the record. When I say “barebones,” I don’t mean the tunes are any less catchy or heartfelt; in fact, the opposite is true. These 11 cuts go deep. The songs will swim in your head long after you’ve pressed stop on your music player. Ingram’s well-chosen words, combined with lush instrumentation, show a songwriter at the top of his game — following in the footsteps of some of his idols. Unlike the songs on Big Dreams & High Hopes, these are creative outputs he would be proud to play for his musical heroes.
“After my last record,” he explains, “I came to the conclusion that I have these big heroes like [Kris] Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson — guys I grew up idolizing and listening to. I [thought], ‘I have a bunch of hit singles and they are great, but if I was in a guitar pool in heaven with any of [my] heroes, I wouldn’t play any of these songs for them.’ Not because they are bad, but as far as the world I’m really gravitating towards and the songs I hold in high regard and respect, I wouldn’t play them those singles. That was the moment I knew, my next record was going to be very different and on a different label.”
Rounder Records is the home he discovered for his music. The now-Nashville-based label is the right place for Ingram at this point in his career, fitting well with his current goals and aspirations.
“I don’t mind being on the fringe of country music in the mainstream,” he says. “And I also don’t mind being on the fringe of Americana music, because I write that kind of music. I needed to be at a label where I know they can sell one million records … they’ve done it. But I also know they are okay with selling 20,000 records.
“At some labels,” he continues, “you make great music and it’s like a tree falling in the woods: Does anyone hear it? [But] Rounder has the capability, if something sparks, they can get it to enough people where you can make a dent.”
The choice of record label, and the songs on Midnight Motel, are about being true and authentic to Ingram’s muse, whether or not he makes a ‘dent.’
“So many people in the world think it’s about talent,” Ingram comments. “Not true. It’s more that artists are being authentic and that authenticity is speaking to a large group of people. Whether you are Beyoncé, Neil Young, or Chip Taylor, they are all telling their truths. The amount of people that they appeal to is not about talent … there is a bit of the luck of the draw, but once you’ve got them, you’ve got them, even if you take a departure.”
“[Big Dreams & High Hopes] wasn’t a sell-out. I felt like my foot was on the brake artistically. I wasn’t really doing all I could do as an artist, and that didn’t sit right.”
Midnight Motel shows a songwriter willing to take risks and make the music he needed to make. To boot, he stayed true to his longtime fans. Does that mean he artist “sold-out” when he recorded Big Dreams & High Hopes?
“I don’t think it’s a matter of selling out,” Ingram says. “That’s a hot button word anyway. I believe selling out is when an artist does something they can’t stand and they know it is only for one reason: to actually cash in or cash out. In my career journey to have hit singles on the radio and be a part of that world, in my mind, I could be wrong, but I don’t have to be on the top of the charts consistently or forever, but all of the guys I really respect had moments where they were.
“They didn’t compromise too much,” he continues. “Face it, you need to compromise a little bit. If you listen to the radio, the production is all the same, so if you are going to get on the radio, pop or country in any mainstream format, you are not going to get played if the production changes predominantly from song to song. That’s not how radio works.”
Ingram says, on Big Dreams & High Hopes, he found a sound that fits into radio formats in a way that he could still dig and play for somebody, and go out and take the lumps and bruises one takes on the road. “That sound and that format is not even a quarter of who I really am,” he explains. “So, it wasn’t a sell out. I felt like my foot was on the brake artistically. I wasn’t really doing all I could do as an artist, and that didn’t sit right. I knew to stay in that format and on that label was about consistency and having hits every few months.”
The mainstream success of his last record allowed Ingram the opportunity to take his time with his next record and make music that is 100 percent authentic to who he is as a songwriter. “I’m willing to take those consequences, which means you may get on the radio and you may not. But, because of the success I’ve had, I’m lucky enough to say, I have an audience, ears that want to hear my music and people who believe in my songwriting because of those hits.”
For Ingram, it was always about making music and having his fans follow him no matter what artistic road he chose. That’s what artists do, after all.
“I would rather be an artist,” he says. “I believe you can be a star and an artist. If everything doesn’t go your way, you’ll be one or the other. For me, I’m willing to bet on being an artist before being a star. At some point in your life if you are going to do something for a living, you bet on your own talent. I can live with that. What I can’t live with is not being completely authentic and living with those results, especially if they are not positive.”
Following the Muse With Nothing to Lose
Midnight Motel is about Ingram going back to a positive place where he had nothing to lose and where he was willing to risk it all. I ask whether it’s like the old cliché of following the muse. “For sure,” he says. “It’s a cliché, but it’s also the truth. Clichés are true for a reason. I realized having a No. 1 record with a song I dug, and I do love ‘Wherever You Are,’ but it doesn’t give me the chills and make me stop on the side of the road and say, ‘holy shit, what just happened?’ That’s the kind of music I want to make and I’m willing to live with the consequences good or bad. That’s where I was at when I started to make this record.”
Ingram determined whether or not a song would make the cut on Midnight Hotel, he says, by whether or not it gave him the chills. “It’s a loose concept record about enduring troubled relationships: professional and personal,” he explains. “At the point I was making the record, my relationships with my wife, my kids, my family, my record company, all of these relationships were and continue to be strained, which I think is how all relationships are if they mean anything. That’s the whole problem. That’s why we are always like, ‘Am I happy? Am I not happy? Why don’t I feel as good as I think I should?’ That’s what a relationship is … you are always tweaking it.
“I said to producer Jon Randall that the only songs I’m going to play for you are songs I’ve written or I’ve found that make me stop,” Ingram adds. “Songs that force the world to stop for me. That’s the kind of music that got me into this trouble in the first place and that’s the kind of music that is going to get me out. Every song on this record hits that bull’s-eye.”
Each song stands alone, but there are a few standouts. For Ingram, one of these is the final song, “All Over Again,” especially because of the way its lyric meets its melody. This tune, which clocks in at just shy of 10 minutes, sums up where Ingram was at when he made this record and what the raison d’être is behind Midnight Motel.
“If you are listening to the lyrics along the way and understanding what is going on, the record leads up to that song,” he explains. “It says, ‘Hey man, all of this shit is hard, we do this, we do that, but here’s why we do it and why we don’t; not one of us on our deathbed would say we would change things. It’s all worth it. Even hardened criminals, on their deathbed, will say ‘I wouldn’t be the man I am today if all of that didn’t happen.’ That song really means a lot to me.”
Another song Ingram is especially proud of is “Nothing to Fix.” He says it’s an open letter to the world kind of song … a stern lesson. “For me, the fourth song on a record is always important,” he says. “I wrote that song with no chorus; just these four line stanzas.” Ingram quotes:
Don’t try to sell what you wouldn’t buy
because you’ll go to hell for telling a lie
Don’t write a song that you wouldn’t sing
because the only thing wrong is everything
Don’t start a fight you think you can’t win
because a hook, left or right, will hit your chin
Don’t light a match and think it won’t burn
because fires just catch
When will you learn?
Midnight Motel: Making a Movie
Taking the record’s concept a step further, Ingram made a film to help promote Midnight Motel. “My hero is Willie Nelson,” he explains. “It wasn’t that much of a stretch because all I could think of was Red Headed Stranger and he made a movie for it. At first, we were talking about doing a video – but what song should we do a video for? We thought how do we prolong the life of the record and came up with the idea to make a video for every song that is linked together. If we did that, we figured why don’t we just make a movie?”
Since Midnight Motel follows a loose concept, it lent itself well to a 14-minute short film. Ingram found Austin-based filmmaker Michael Tully (Ping Pong Summer with Susan Sarandon). Tully came on the road with Ingram and documented his life as a troubled troubadour. The film even features one of Ingram’s heroes (Jerry Jeff Walker) as the bartender.
“We talked about the songs, the record, and what I thought the movie should look like and he basically wrote a loose script around the lyrics of the record,” Ingram says.
If Ingram could spend the rest of his career being this involved and this focused in what he’s doing in terms of what kind of record he’s making and why and having all the pieces fit together, he would be happy.
“It’s a great place to be as an artist to wake up knowing what you are doing, rather than waking up going, let’s make up some shit to do to promote … that’s not that much fun,” Ingram concludes. “Instead, making this movie will help people understand this record, and listening to the record will help people understand the movie; they go together and it works … that’s when the fires are burning.”