By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch


Texan Jack Ingram didn't pick up a
guitar until he was a student at
Southern Methodist University.

March 4, 2004

Texas singer-songwriter Jack Ingram is not one to ignore his own advice: "Keep on, keep on keepin' on/Push it on down the line/Keep on, keep on keepin' on/Keep from getting further behind."

That lyric from "Electric," his most recent studio CD, sums up the work ethic of the country roots rocker who plays a solo acoustic show tonight at Off Broadway.

Add the tour to three - three! - recent live albums, an online column, a Sunday night radio show in Dallas, the summer Real American Music Festival, a fan crew called the Jack Ingram Street Team and preparations for a new studio CD, and you've got a guy who's heavily into outreach.

But Ingram, on the phone from Texas recently before a show at Gruene Hall, says it's not so much a marketing plan as a survival strategy.

"The bottom line is that if Beyonce, for example, left the music business tomorrow, no one's going to really care about her career," Ingram says. "The point of doing it yourself is that no one cares more than I do about my own career and my own life. Every time I've tried to close my eyes and say (to a record label), 'Y'all take it from here,' it just sputters.

"I guess I get so afraid that at some point it'll be taken away from me, so I take steps to make sure that doesn't happen."

The three live albums give him a total of four - about half of his recorded output - since his career took off in the mid-'90s. And it's typical of Ingram that each of the three new live sets is different.

"Live at Billy Bob's Texas" features his full band on 15 tracks, including favorites "Beat Up Ford," "Flutter," "Keep On Keepin' On" and "A Little Bit," plus a rousing cover of Waylon Jennings' classic "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" It's available everywhere.

"Live at Gruene Hall," also a band album, boasts a different lineup of 15 songs and is sold only at www.jackingram.net and shows, as is "Acoustic Motel."

"Acoustic Motel," Ingram says, is a way to bring the focus back "onto the songwriting aspect of what I do."

"I'm not sure how to explain it," he says. "The main reason - it seems hard to say out loud - is I'm hoping that I have an impact on people. I get to tell people why I write songs and where they come from and how I was feeling at the time, and I try to create a setting of letting people know that everybody feels this way."

Ingram started playing guitar when he was 18 at Southern Methodist University, when "a couple of chords from somebody" led to a Willie Nelson songbook.

Ingram's list of influences is broad, from Willie and Waylon and the country "outlaw" movement, to rockers Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, to jazz musician Chet Baker and blues belter Etta James and the unclassifiable Tom Waits.

"I love the very quiet, small art, and I also love the anthem art," he says. "That influences what I do and how. The influence from Baker and James is the drama, the powerful setting. Etta James' voice is so dramatic and powerful. The room for emotion in the music I get from artists like that."

The Acoustic Motel tour - the stage is dressed like a motel room - lets Ingram turn down the volume and punch generated by his Beat Up Ford Band and present his songs as "quiet, small art." It also lets him continue to enjoy steady work and enthusiastic audiences while defining success as something other than hits and major-label prominence.

"It's possible that I could at some point in the mid-'90s have said (to a record company), 'OK, tell me how to be a star,'" Ingram says. "And maybe now I wouldn't have a radio show specific to me, maybe I'd just be a mainstream country guy. But that's not the career I wanted.

"Not that I don't want to have hits. But I want to sound a particular way. If all you want to do is be heard on the radio, that's possible. But I'm concerned about length and breadth of my career, and what I am to music lovers. That's very important to me.

"I know that by the decisions I make musically, there's a price to pay: I won't always get backing from record companies. But it's not really a plan to take over the universe. It's a plan to be able to exist in this universe."