Jack Ingram

When Jack Ingram won the 2008 Academy of Country Music award for “Best New Male Vocalist,” thousands of people in the audience had to be smiling to themselves about that whole “new” thing. They knew the thirty-something, steel-eyed veteran accepting that trophy on that stage in Vegas had been rocking roadhouses, theaters and stadiums relentlessly since 1997, that he’d been celebrated by critics and fans of hard-core country music for more than a decade, and that as a Texas-born songwriter and performer, he’d been on the short list of next generation artists who could fill the boots of Lone Star legends like Willie and Waylon and the boys.

But the award did mean that Ingram, after trials and setbacks that would have buckled other artists, had at last matched the commercial success he’d always wanted with the integrity on which he’d always insisted. So he told the crowd with no small measure of pride and triumph that night that “big dreams and high hopes” can come true.

Now, as if to validate and amplify that truth, Ingram remains in the forefront of country music with the album Big Dreams & High Hopes, the seventh studio disc of his career and his third for Nashville maverick indie label Big Machine Records. Its eleven tracks range through the many facets of Ingram’s unique take on country music and songwriting. There’s the textured and contemplative “Seeing Stars” sung in ethereal tandem with Patty Griffin. You’ll find a couple of superb roots rocking country songs Jack wrote with compadre and mentor Radney Foster. And you’ve probably already heard the swimming hole party anthem “Barefoot and Crazy” which quickly became a radio smash and a soundtrack for the hot summer of 2009.

Ingram says the album’s intimate title track came from a conversation “about lasting through a bunch of BS and finding success at the time I did. At one point I said, ‘Well, I had my guitar and big dreams and high hopes,’ and that just kind of rung a bell. The song that came out of that basically talks about having this wanderlust to go out and take my music on the road like my heroes did – dreaming about it and chasing it down.”

That journey began in Houston, Texas, where Ingram grew up. His first stage experience came not through music but a drama class he took to fulfill a requirement his senior year of high school. It wasn’t his calling, but it was a rush.

“All of a sudden there was this slot machines online pressure and this element of having to deliver right now in front of a crowd, and if you don’t you fall on your ass,” he says. “And that got me.” During college at Southern Methodist University, he applied that challenge to music for the first time, starting at an open mic night with two Willie Nelson songs learned out of a song book and one original tune.

It didn’t take long for the charismatic Ingram and his Beat Up Ford Band to pack the bars of Dallas and Houston, but he was acutely aware that having come of age idolizing icons like Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen, real online pokies that he had a lot of learning and growing to do.

“I knew what I was doing was not sounding the way it was sounding in my head, so I was very unsatisfied,” Ingram remembers. “My heroes were the best.”

So with his vision clearly set, Ingram gradually built a reputation as a smart songwriter and a can’t-miss live performer. Nashville’s Rising Tide label signed him, re-issuing his first two independent albums, a live disc, and 1997’s Livin’ or Dyin’. When Rising Tide went out of business, Ingram found a home at Sony’s boutique Lucky Dog label, where, in what became something of a pattern, he was admired by music writers and country connoisseurs but he struggled to connect on country radio. He also felt unfairly typecast as a member of an “insurgent” country movement.

“Coming from Texas and me trying to have my own identity may have come off as anti-establishment or Texas versus Nashville. But that was a misconception. I wanted to be right where I am right now. Twenty in the game, on the big stage.”

But things had to get worse before they got better.

“I lost my record deal with Sony,” he says. “I lost a management deal. I was in this place where I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had a kid who was one year old. I really didn’t have a career to speak of at the time.”

And from that difficult place, he wrote “In The Corner,” one of the best songs of his career, an “open letter” he calls it now, to a music industry where he’d sought only support in being who he was rather than someone he wasn’t.

Yeah, he’s just another young cynic
We get them all the time.
If he just knew how to channel
All that anger he’d be fine”.
So I sit with all these wishes and dreams dying on the vine
Knowing I could make you happy for a minute with a lie.

The song is the final track on Big Dreams & High Hopes, and those lyrics make what happened next all the more remarkable. Jack Ingram met Scott Borchetta, a veteran country record promoter who’d launched his own label Big Machine Records. In an industry and genre where outsider labels have had an almost impossible time building hit-making careers, Big Machine took a chance on Jack, and equally Jack took a chance on one of those independent label. The new label worked with more dedication and patience than Ingram had ever seen to find the song that would break through. It was “Wherever You Are,” the first single of his career to reach Number One.

“I spent YEARS trying to figure out what I was doing wrong,” says Ingram. “Why is this not working? How do I need to change? And finally you get with the right people, and you go, ‘I don’t need to change anything. I just need to show up and do the job.’ All I had to do was be myself.”

The album Wherever You Are, a mostly live project, was followed by 2008’s This Is It and now Big Dreams & High Hopes. Already the new album has produced the top twenty single “That’s A Man.” And “Barefoot and Crazy” appears poised for a whole lot more airplay. But this is far more than a repository of a few hit singles. The album kicks off with “Free,” a breezy and uplifting embrace of the finer non-material things in life. Ingram worked with Jeffrey Steele and Tom Hambridge to write the swaying and satisfying “Not Giving Up On Me” with its large chorus drenched with steel guitar and gratitude to a supportive lover. And people will surely talk about Ingram’s intense, refreshed version of “Barbie Doll,” probably the most popular song from his live show, recorded here in a fantastic, wise-ass duet with Dierks Bentley.

In a time when the music industry tries so hard to jam new artists up to the top of the charts before they’re ready, only to so often see them plummet back to earth, Ingram’s rise has been slow and steady, fueled by dreams and hopes for sure, but more substantially by high standards and the ambition for a career measured in decades and influence rather than chart position. He’s in the best place he’s ever been and it’s clear from a few listens to Big Dreams & High Hopes that confidence is bolstering his artistry.

Jamie Wilson

If Jamie Wilson tells you something, you can absolutely guarantee it's exactly what she feels. She's not concerned with your feelings if they come at the expense of her honesty. That's not to say she's ungracious or rude, just direct and unflinchingly true.

Wilson sang around the house growing up (when no one else was around the house, that is), but didn't start playing music and writing songs until she was a college sophomore at Texas A&M. "My cousin and I went to go see the Dixie Chicks in Houston during their Fly tour. There was a part in the show where the other girls went off and Natalie stayed on stage and played 'Cold Day in July' on guitar by herself. I was watching her and I told my cousin, 'I just need a guitar; I could do that. I'm musical enough.'," Jamie remembers.

Later that month, Jamie's cousin and mother went in together to buy Jamie her first guitar as a Christmas gift. She first learned to play by printing out lyrics to songs and learning the chords by ear. Wilson quickly learned every song on both Dixie Chicks records, all of Phil Pritchett's Heritage Way album, and all of the tunes on Bruce Robison's Long Way Home From Anywhere. She wrote her first song a couple of months later and was in a band, the Sidehill Gougers, within six months of receiving that first guitar.

"We would have practice every Tuesday at Shane's [Shane Walker, Sidehill Gougers founding member] house, and nobody, except for Shane, knew what they were doing. I could barely even play guitar and Shane had me playing banjo too," Jamie recalls. It didn't take long for the band to get up to speed, and within a year they had released their first CD, Runaway Scrape, with Walker and Wilson sharing the vocals and splitting the songwriting duties. The Gougers (after dropping "Sidehill") would go on to release an EP and another full-length record before musical and personal differences resulted in the band parting ways over the course of 2009. As the Gougers were winding down, Wilson found a side project - originally envisioned as a one-time only performance - taking off.

Early each January, thousands of Texans cross the Red River and make the trek up the Rockies to enjoy MusicFest - five days of Texas music, friendship, and skiing (not to mention hundreds of gallons of Jaegermeister). A staple of recent MusicFests has been a tribute to a Texas artist, with many of the festival's performers doing a song or two of the featured songwriter. In 2009, the artist honored was Kevin Welch. The star of the tribute show was Wilson's new group, the Trishas.

Liz Foster, then of the husband and wife duet Liz & Lincoln, is credited with putting the group together to play two songs for the tribute. A natural for the band was Kevin Welch's daughter Savannah. Foster also enlisted another member of a male-female duo - Kelley Mickwee of Jed and Kelley. Jamie Wilson was the last one to join.

They originally dubbed themselves the Fat Trishas (in jest, each one of these girls could stand a second slice of pie) before shortening the name to the Trishas. The group was the buzz of the five-day festival and before they realized it, this one-night only group was offered gigs that none of its members had been able to score in years of trying with their other efforts. Wilson sums it up. "I guess it's easier to have four chicks in a band than one." The instant attention allowed the group to bypass the usual due-paying three hour gigs. Instead they play 50 minute slots at festivals and high-profile opening sets, and focus on making those 50 minutes as tight as possible. "Having four girls in the band might get people out to see us once," Wilson explains, "but they're not coming back unless the music is really good."

They've also been invited to record backing vocals on songs for artists such as Ray Wylie Hubbard and Raul Malo. They secured management and a booking agent in late 2009, but still approach things with a side project mindset, giving them the freedom to turn down offers that they would have jumped at in the past.

The band plans to ramp up their opportunities and their profile even more by recording a debut album early in 2010. Many producers have already expressed interest in working with the group on the record, but no concrete decisions have been made as the girls finish rounding the material for the sessions into shape.

In January the Trishas returned to the place where their career started one short year ago. They were one of seven female acts playing at MusicFest, which had 38 acts overall. Close to 20% is an impressive number of females for a Texas Music festival; even more impressive though is the fact that Jamie Wilson represents almost half of those acts. Along with performing in the Trishas, Jamie also has a set with Johnny and the Footlights, a county classics cover band that she fronts along with Jason Eady, and one set for an artist she rarely appears as - Jamie Wilson.

After years of only being identified by the band she played with, Wilson has recorded her first solo record, Dirty Blonde Hair, an EP which will be released in early 2010. "I was in a band almost as soon as I got a guitar. Then before the Gougers were even done, this thing with the Trishas was taking off. I wanted to at least get some of my own music out there. Something that's just me," Wilson states. The EP combines the best elements of Wilson's work with the Gougers and the Trishas, but just a touch more - according to Wilson - "Creepy. It seems that death seeps into all of my songs in one way or another."

"The River", the first song on Dirty Blonde Hair, sets the tone, with baritone guitar, banjo, electric guitar, and squeeze box creating the setting for Wilson's rich and distinctive vocals. "Dusty Shoes" showcases Wilson at her lyrical best, singing to a flawed lover: "I'm not the trusting kind, I'm not the answer / I'm not the one to fix your kind of cancer / but I'll do anything that you ask of me / if it'll ease your pain, ease your lonely". "Little Too Rough" sounds like a triple-A hit waiting to happen, and on the title track Wilson combines a waltz and back-masked electric guitar to heartbreaking effect. The biggest hook of the record lands in the chorus of the relentlessly toe-tapping "Ordinary People". The EP concludes with an epic version (7 minutes) of "Whistling", a song that is a Trishas staple and is virtually assured to appear on their full-length record as well, albeit with a far different arrangement. In just six songs, Wilson presents a complete portrait of an artist, leaving none of the colors in her palette unused.

In addition to releasing the EP and recording a full-length album with the Trishas, Jamie has another big project on her plate for 2010 - she and husband Roy are expecting their first child in June of 2010. A near-obsessive planner (She presented Roy with an elaborate travel plan for her gigs along with a detailed list of who could help care for the baby in each city where Wilson has regular gigs. Roy listened patiently before responding, "You know this baby is going to have a dad, right?"), Jamie has scheduled all of her 2010 to fit around the time she'll need to take off. "We're recording in April or May, my baby's due in late June, we can do all of the artwork and publicity through the summer, and then try to release the record in September." Wilson plans to hit the road with the band in support of the record immediately after the release, bringing along a merch person/nanny in tow.

Even if the reality of 2010 doesn't match her exacting plan for it, Wilson will make it through fueled by the excitement over the possibilities the year promises. An excitement unmatched since she had that realization over nine years ago that playing and writing songs was something she could do.

-Michael Devers

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