WALKING the line is hard, but when it's the one separating Texas' insurrectionist songwriters from mainstream country stars, it can be death-defying.
These days, Jack Ingram -- the churning rocky tonker who draws heavily on Waylon Jennings' and Rodney Crowell's robustly personal styles -- isn't just walking the line but eradicating it. "This Is It," his new album, just bowed at No. 4 on Billboard's country album chart and No. 34 on the overall pop album list.
To do that, Ingram rose at 2:30 a.m. on release morning and did 150 radio interviews live from Las Vegas. He did an in-store, a sound check, local radio, more drive-time remote interviews, a concert, a meet and greet into the night. The next day, it started all over again -- and it was that way throughout the week, one that culminated in first-week sales of 26,000 copies, behind Tim McGraw and Carrie Underwood and barely nosed out of No. 3 by Alabama's latest gospel collection, heavily promoted on the QVC shopping channel.
"My best first week before this was 6,000 copies," the fiery roots rocker said by phone from his Austin home during a rare break of release-week promotional activity, "and before that it was 3,500. It's funny; I've done the interviews, the in-stores, the shows ... all of it before, but it's never added up to this."
After a slow and steady decade, he may be the guy to bust out of the Texas fold. Ingram put his first album out himself in 1995, released his first major-label CD two years later and is now with his third major. But he found a home on country radio only last fall with "Wherever You Are," his first No. 1 single. He's toured with Brooks & Dunn and Sheryl Crow over the last year, but he's also recorded material he didn't write and worked on the new album with Nashville's famed session players.
"They don't know who I am or who I think I am," he said with a laugh about working with the A Team, "and they do three [recording] sessions a day. How do you keep your mouth shut but get 'em to understand what you're trying to do? I can't speak their language musically, but emotionally ... I can certainly let them know why I'm singing these songs."
Billboard country charts director Wade Jessen concurs about Ingram's inclusiveness. "Jack is smart: He's looking to see where he can take himself creatively. ... You have to remember too these country boys and girls want to rock 'n' roll a little bit."
The songs -- and aesthetics -- on "This Is It" mark the evolution of an angry young man embracing adulthood.
"It's ironic [that] the guy who wrote 'Biloxi' " -- a son's bitter song to an absentee father -- "and made fun of those 'family kinda songs' now writes about being a father," he conceded. "But you gotta be honest."
Ingram's business-meets-roots hybrid also manages to merge rock and adult contemporary aesthetics -- his current single is his version of Hinder's "Lips of an Angel" -- connecting the dots for country fans. And if the song's does-he-or-doesn't-he axis of cheating tilts at country's recent morality zone, it's part of a new country in which Bon Jovi can have the week's most added single.
"Jack doesn't make 'Texas music' and it just fits in a certain box," Country Music Assn. President Clarence Spalding, who also manages country heavyweights Brooks & Dunn, offered. "He is hip and cool, and happens to be from Texas ... but he didn't find the middle ground to fit in Nashville so much as he found a label that finally got him heard."
"Sheryl's audience buys Johnny Cash's 'American Recordings,' " Ingram says of the blurring. "When they saw us with her, they connected with that part of what we do. If you look at Brooks & Dunn's last four singles, before [the church ballady] 'Believe,' they could've been Rolling Stones songs ... which is kind of what the Outlaw movement felt like when my friend and I found his dad's vinyl of 'Red Headed Stranger' " by Willie Nelson.
Ingram, who endured thousands of van miles, half-empty bars and mechanical bust-ups along the way, is willing to aim high enough not to reject the mainframe -- or the notion of how people live.
"The word compromise is loaded," said the man who will be part of Brad Paisley's upcoming tour. "It implies you gave in, but really, country radio moved toward me too. The Gary Allan records, Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley....
"For me, it's the fact that the world's tough and we all know it. Music should be the touchstone.... I've had plenty of chances to not be true to my vision, but in the end, I want inspiration and emotion to come to mind, the way I experienced 'Red Headed Stranger' or 'Born to Run,' Guy Clark.... That's the intensity I want, but I want people to hear it, so they can decide."