The country crooner is living the dream, giving back to Austin and making music on his own terms.
In the music business there’s a lofty milestone called the diamond record—an album certified as selling 10 million or more copies— which only a handful of stars ever achieve. The Beatles have five of them, and so does Led Zeppelin. Garth Brooks has a gaudy six diamond records, while country peers Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks weigh in with three and two, respectively. Journey, Meatloaf and Matchbox 20 have amazingly managed to join that club too. Taylor Swift doesn’t have any yet, though with 22 million total albums sold at age 23 it’s a good bet she’ll have one before she turns 30.
Jack Ingram—the honest and smooth-sounding Austin country crooner who for several years and two albums was Swift’s label mate on Big Machine—is so far away from having a diamond record he’s practically in another time zone, and even a few country miles from going platinum or gold. It’s a distance that Ingram, 42, says he is perfectly aware of and mostly comfortable with as he peppers an hour-long conversation with the phrase “10 million records,” referencing it as a career ideal that might forever elude him, even after a series of hit singles in the mid-2000s.
“We didn’t sell 10 million records,” the now record label–free singer says matter-of-factly about his time on Big Machine, which saw him top the Billboard country charts with “Wherever You Are” and place several more singles in the top 40. “We sold a couple hundred thousand. So under those rules of the music business, and certainly the company that I was with, a couple hundred thousand records is not going to be OK for a record company that sells 10 million Taylor Swift records.”
Rather than being despondent, there’s a steady confidence to Ingram’s voice as he talks about the frustrations and thrilling heights of the last several years of his career, which began by playing at bars and parties while he was studying psychology at Southern Methodist University and has reached a sort of crossroads after parting ways with Big Machine in 2011. Whether Ingram ever gets to the point where his album sales have precious metals associated with them is anyone’s guess.
But by turning his attention toward charity and giving for most of this past year and teaming up with some big-name friends to draw more attention and dollars, he’s shown that—in some respects—he’s got nothing left to achieve. His Mack, Jack and McConaughey charity, founded with University of Texas football coach Mack Brown and acclaimed actor Matthew McConaughey, got off the ground this year because of a desire to make a big splash with their combined star power and raise several hundred thousand dollars for five charities focused on youth empowerment.
Inspired in part by the high-profile charity golf tournaments held by Willie Nelson, former Longhorns coach Darryl Royal and golfer Ben Crenshaw, MJ&M made its initial bow in April. With two sold-out nights of music at ACL Live, a glitzy silent auction, golf tournament and fashion show, the launch showed that it’s possible to get out of the cycle of what Ingram called “rubber-chicken dinners” and golf outings that rarely accomplish more than helping the participants feel good about themselves.
“I had the hat from the Darryl and Willie tournament that my dad gave me from 1983 that I was looking at,” Ingram says of his first inspiration in late 2011 for what quickly became a group effort. “I started thinking about that one night, and I texted Mack and asked him if he’d ever heard of that golf tournament. He said yes. This is all after one o’clock in the morning, so I was really surprised he was answering me. And so I said, ‘Would you like to put something together with me?’ and he said yes. He said, ‘I’m in. Let’s talk about it in the morning.’ That was my cue to stop texting him.”
Brown quickly suggested the pair bring his good friend McConaughey into the fold and the three set forth on planning a way to combine their separate charitable efforts into a unified front that could bring far more awareness and fundraising than they could have on their own. Brown says Ingram’s pitch to him soon became a sort of blessing by allowing him to focus on one concentrated effort—during a somewhat calm period in the football calendar—rather than participating in many smaller events throughout the year.
“We were doing so much that…we were all over the place,” Brown said prior to the opening night reception and concert that featured McConaughey comrade John Mellencamp. “We felt like we could make one huge event and still give the same amount or more money back to the charities we’re very passionate about.”
Aside from making the initial call to launch the effort, Ingram’s biggest imprint on the MJ&M launch was on its second night with a concert featuring nearly a dozen songwriters he recruited, including Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Bobby Pinson and Randy Travis. By opening that set with one song before playing fan/co-emcee for the night and introducing his friends and heroes, Ingram gave himself a smaller role and let the bigger stars get most of the attention. It’s a role he says he became comfortable with as the charity’s mission and plan of action came into focus.
“I know where my name is on the food chain of Mack, Jack and McConaughey, but I also know where my name is on the food chain of general exposure in Texas,” he says. “I knew that if it was Mack Brown, Jack Ingram and Matthew McConaughey at an event in Austin, in Texas… I knew that alone would be a pretty big splash. Part of what I wanted to do was something that was much bigger than myself or the people involved, and I think we achieved that.”
Fundraising totals for the launch events weren’t disclosed as of this writing—though many estimates out the number as more than $1 million—but the charity has already started making plans for its 2014 events, showing the three men are committed to making a difference in Austin for years to come. Asked why he settled in Austin in 2004 after his career was already well underway, Ingram starts with the practical; after the birth of their first child, Ingram’s wife, Amy, needed help with rides and day care, and her sister who lived in Austin offered to help. But the city’s inherent charm and weirdness was also a draw that made it easy to relocate. The couple now lives with their three children in a west Austin home near the Golf Club at Spanish Oaks.
“I’ve always loved the live-and-let-live mentality around here,” Ingram says. “I’m not a hippie, but that ‘free to be you and me’ vibe is pretty strong here. And it really works, and you can be whoever you want to be. You can reinvent yourself. You can be a rich, badass investment banker or a struggling songwriter, and you can end up in the same place.”
And while he’d already released several records and made a national name for himself through touring, Ingram says Austin’s music-friendly climate made it easier to find both opportunity and acceptance as an artist.
“I wasn’t coming here to cut my teeth or to find myself, or to allow myself to be an artist. I’d already carved that out by the time I’d moved here. The heartbeat of music in Texas is here, and I wanted to be close to that. If for nothing else, to recharge. The legitimacy of music here is important. If you’re at a party in other cities and someone asks what you do, and you say ‘I’m a singer-songwriter,’ it’s kind of like, ‘Really? Are you still doing that music thing?’ It’s just kind of like it’s not real unless you have outward signs of success. But in Austin you can say that and there’s no sideways looks. It’s the same as being in real estate or any other profession.”
Austin is also a city where a wide-eyed idea like getting a Grand Ole Opry season’s worth of songwriting talent up on stage for a good cause can actually happen, which is why beyond the dollars raised, the second night of the MJ&M extravaganza was so special.
“Kris Kristofferson not only played that night, but he sat on stage for all three hours and listened to every song that was played, and they were playing for him,” says longtime Austin radio personality and music journalist Andy Langer, who helped emcee the event. “Kristofferson is usually gone in a waiting car once he’s done playing, so you talk about the best-case scenario, that’s it right there. That’s something you can build on because it’s of a caliber where Kris Kristofferson sat at this event and watched three hours of songwriters who were there performing.”
The night of stripped-down, simple picking and singing points to one possible career direction for Ingram as he contemplates what he’ll do next after separating from Big Machine in 2011. Going after radio-fueled stardom is an option, Langer says, but so too is following in the footsteps of great Texas voices like Robert Earl Keen.
“He’s still in a place where he’s able to write his own ticket. Does he want to keep swinging for the fences and try to get the exposure that comes with that? Or does he make the kind of records he’s always wanted to make, which probably wouldn’t sell well with Nashville, and set himself up as the next of the great troubadours who will always be able to fill up a theater?”
The answer, for now at least, isn’t quite clear. Ingram makes no bones about his desire to have his music heard by as wide of an audience as possible—“I’ve always wanted to have people know my music. If I wasn’t concerned with that, I’d just have kept on playing in my bedroom.”—but a listen to the demos he’s prepared over the last year-plus confirms that he’s turned the corner and left the glossy studio sheen of his Big Machine days behind. While still showcasing his gift for relatable characters in tough and common struggles, there’s a sparse, more rugged feel to his latest material that suggests he’s headed down the road of a long line of Texas songsmith heroes instead of letting someone else cast him as the next radio-ready, easily digestible Brad Paisley or Kenny Chesney clone.
“I won’t make a compromise again musically,” he says, referencing the crossover attempts and slick production of his recent records that were a pretty stark contrast to his sweaty, rocking live shows. “Not because I’m an outlaw or banging my chest or slamming my foot on the table—it’s because I’m 42 years old, and I don’t have to. And I know exactly what kind of music I want to make, and how I want to make it. If you don’t want to do that with me, that’s fine. I could die tomorrow. You get to that point in your life where, money’s great, but I’m going to be able to make money because now I’m sure of who I am and what my talents are. It has nothing to do with chart success.”
Ingram’s comfort with the ups and downs of his profession comes across loud and clear on “Living The Dream,” a twanging rocker that’s one of the strongest and most stirring of his newest batch of songs. Over the course of the song’s four-and-a-half minutes, Ingram revisits a career’s worth of long nights, bum gigs and hungover mornings that are part of the deal when toughing it out on the road, but the song’s chorus—“I could pack it all in and give it all up, but then what? It’s a heartache I wouldn’t trade for anything”—emphatically states that he’s in this for the long haul. The question he’s still trying to answer as he regroups after his brush with modest-but-sometimes-uncomfortable success is where that road leads.
“I find myself now, in a very positive way, digging myself out of my own success,” he says. “You have some success, but you don’t have the grand success that you want to fully express yourself artistically, and you kind of back yourself into a corner a little bit. “It’s like one of those Amazing Race shows where everyone is gung ho, you’ve got a plan and you go ‘Oh… This is great. We’re further along than we wanted to but we hit a roadblock.’ And you go, ‘OK, I guess we’ve got to figure this out.’ That’s where we ended up for the last year and a half. Now we got to turn in another direction. I know there’s an audience out there for me. Is it 100,000 people? Is it a million? I have no clue. But I know there’s an audience or else I wouldn’t be making a living doing what I do.”
Golf, and Jack Ingram’s “Pawn Shop Theory”
It makes sense that a star-studded golf outing at Barton Creek Resort was one of the highlights during the first round of fundraising events for the Mack, Jack and McConaughey charity. A longtime duffer who loves to play solo to unwind and enjoy the mental challenge of the game, Jack Ingram estimates he’s played in dozens of charity tournaments over the years. But it’s a childhood link to the game’s history, thanks to his father’s penchant for pawn shop treasure hunting, that has stayed with him and shaped the “take it or leave it” philosophy he’s applying to the next phase of his career.
“My dad always went to pawn shops,” Ingram says. “He collected golf clubs and would try to get these certain kind of Ben Hogan woods that were worth thousands of dollars, and you could find them in pawn shops for $20 because they just looked like a regular golf club. I was trying to buy a stereo, and he was teaching me about earning money and trying to buy something smart. So we went to a bunch of pawn shops and he taught me, ‘When we walk in here we’re going to figure out the price before the guy comes up to us. There’s a price we’re not going to go over, and when we say that price, if he doesn’t say yes we’ll say that’s all we’re paying or we’re walking out. And we’re not lying. We are walking out and we’re not looking back. And you watch. When we walk out he’ll come to the door and ask us back in and he’ll give us our price. But you have to mean it.’ I always called that the pawn shop theory. And the beauty of that is meaning it. It’s saying, ‘This is what I will do, and there’s no negotiating. If you don’t want to do that, great, we can still be friends.’ That’s how I’ve learned to look at my career—at this point it’s not a negotiation; I’m gonna make music the way I want to make it. You just have to trust in me that I want to make commercial music. I want to make music that sells, because my life depends on it as well. If you trust me, and I tell you I’m going to make music that I think is great, and I’m gonna hand it in to you, that’s our relationship.”
ATX Man: What have you learned about Jack and the type of guy he is during the process of working together?
Mack Brown: Jack is incredibly driven and focused on providing the best for his family, his fans and his community. I knew when we came together for this event that we would be able to empower a lot of young lives and at the same time provide an event and an experience for the community that everyone can really enjoy.
AM: Jack calls himself a control freak, and clearly he works hard, but he obviously cares a lot about everything he does.
MB: He works so hard at everything he does, you can hear it in his music and see it when he performs on stage. When we were planning the event, he was so focused on making it the best experience possible for everyone involved. I was blown away by the passion and experience displayed throughout the Jack & Friends concert and how passionate he was in choosing artists for that night because he knew the incredible impact it would have on the audience.
AM: What kind of lasting impression/legacy do you think MJ&M can make in Austin?
MB: After kicking off our first year, we hope to continue to grow and encourage the community to get involved in empowering kids through attending future events, and opening their hearts to all of the amazing organizations that MJ&M will impact.
An Event to Remember
When Jack Ingram, Mack Brown and Matthew McConaughey joined forces in late 2012 to create the Mack, Jack & McConaughey charity, their goal was to raise the stakes of fundraising in Austin by leveraging their combined star power to draw big names and even bigger sums of cash for five Austin-area children’s charities. Mission: accomplished. Total figures are still forthcoming, but by nearly all estimates, the early April slate of events—two sold-out nights of music at ACL Live, a gala with silent auction, a golf tournament and fashion show—raised more than $1 million for The Rise School of Austin, Just Keep Livin’ Foundation, HeartGift, CureDuchenne and Grounded in Music.
The auction alone—with an Aston Martin auto fetching $180,000 and an American Kennel Club-registered golden retriever going for $15,000—rang up nearly $350,000. Also eye-bulging was the lineup of musical talent secured by Ingram, with legends like Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark and Randy Travis pitching in and taking turns on the stage. The hushed audience savored every second, from Clark’s sparse guitar and learned character sketches to Travis’s easy back and forth with the crowd ahead of favorites like “Diggin’ Up Bones” and “Forever and Ever, Amen.”
There was also Ingram, who acted as a sort of emcee for the night by introducing close to a dozen of his musical heroes and contemporaries. And in a show of comfortable humility, the songwriter also served as the opening act at his own party, giving a heartfelt take on “Great Divide” before ceding the stage to the impressive lineup.
“I’ve had to go on right after Kris Kristofferson has played,” Ingram recalls of an intimidating appearance at Willie Nelson’s picnic a few years back. “As good as I think I am, I also know the facts. Five hall-of-fame songs in a row by Kris Kristofferson and five of the best I can do, I mean, I’m on the B team. To have him there, on the side of the stage watching me…I’m not a kid anymore so I wasn’t nervous, but I was very excited.”