Image Credit: David McClisterOne of the best performances on Sunday night’s Academy of Country Music Awards was Jack Ingram‘s “Barbie Doll,” a raucous throwdown with pal Dierks Bentley that ended with two dozen girls mobbing the men on stage and rubbing up against them in all sorts of inappropriate ways.
“Barbie Doll” first appeared on Ingram’s 1999 Hey You, a terrific album from the days when Ingram was a superstar in Texas and nowhere else; it was repurposed on last year’s Big Dreams & High Hopes, Ingram’s first record after winning Top “New” Artist at the 2008 ACMs, 13 years into his 15-year career. For old-school Ingram fans, his transition from Texas to Nashville has been more than a little awkward to watch, like a perfect junkyard dog after a trip to the groomers: it’s not that we don’t want him to be clean, we just fell in love with him dirty. I took him to task for Big Dreams & High Hopes, but thankfully, Ingram’s still speaking to me, and we caught up backstage after his ACM rehearsal for an honest conversation about why he’s currently touring smaller venues, what he hopes the “Barbie Doll” performance will accomplish, and why up until now, his mainstream country career has just been “small talk.”
How do you feel about where you are in your career, and how things are going? I know you’re out playing bars and small clubs, and it’s a return to where you started. Where are you hoping that leads?
It’s kinda just coming back around. Making a run through and hopefully coming back out the other side again. There’s a certain intimacy that you get in a bar show that you can’t get opening for people in front of thousands. And I’ve got so many fans in the last five or six years that haven’t been in that scene with me, so I feel like they maybe missed out on a certain energy that might create separation between me and other artists that are doing as well as I am. It’s still a business on some level. I’m not selling as many records as I want to, and I’m not headlining yet. So I still need to figure out how to make that big move that I came here for. And I think part of that is making a deeper connection with my existing fans, and letting them know why — I mean, in music we try to pretend that it’s not competitive or whatever. But there needs to be some separation, me saying why I’m important to you in a different way that Artist #17 is.
Why are you important?
I feel like I have a lot to give, and just having a song on the radio, and just playing a song in front of ten thousand people as an opening act doesn’t let you in on that part of my life.
Has this experience of switching over to Nashville out of Texas been what you thought it was going to be?
Yeah. It’s everything I thought it would be. Good and bad. I knew coming in that there’s a lot of good exposure and things that are fantastic about being in this world. But I was well aware of the downside, too, which is just — you know, man, I’m a pro. I know what’s going on here. And you’ve got to take that with it. You’ve got to take the good with the bad, don’t they say that?
What are you having to be a pro about the most?
Well, it’s not really having to be a pro. It’s more like still trying to find my own voice. The reason why I dug into the artists that I dig — Dwight Yoakam, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, just on the country side — is because I knew who they were and what they were about. They had opinions, they didn’t agree with everything, and when they didn’t, you knew. But they didn’t come across as being sour grapes and little smart-asses. They came across as men having an opinion and being able to stand up behind it. Now, in this world, there’s a lot more focus on people’s opinions. There’s a lot more access to all of this stuff. So for me it’s been an exercise in learning how to be opinionated and be myself. To figure out how not to be a d—, but also let people know, Hey, man, this glitz and glamour stuff? You can have it. Let’s get down to real songs, and real stories, and real things. That’s what this music has always been about to me. The glitz and glamour stuff might come along with it, but I don’t buy records for that — and I don’t think people who are gonna be fans of mine are gonna buy my records for it. I don’t want to be just another pretty boy. And I think without learning how to differentiate myself from that… Maybe until now, people really don’t know the difference between me and Pretty Boy #4. So there’s a lot of confusing things about me. What I’m trying to do is create some focus. Like, Here’s the kind of artist that I am. These big shows — I enjoy watching them. But that’s not the kind of artist I want to be.
Do you need to remind yourself of that, too?
For me, trying to break into this world — don’t get me wrong, Whitney. For 13 years before I broke into this world, it wasn’t ’cause I wasn’t trying to. I wanted to play the ACMs in 1997 when my first major label record came out. I was wondering why I wasn’t invited to the show. See? So, for me, it wasn’t like I said, “I want to go over there!” and all of a sudden the doors opened for me. It was me banging on the doors, and finally one opened. Not that I want to be Mr. Slam On Everything, but I spent so much time over the first few years of this new process just being glad to be at the party. Like, “Hey! How you doin’! Thanks for having me!” I haven’t had the ability to get into any real conversation, me with the audience. Up until this point, it’s all been small talk.
And you’ve developed very exquisite hair over that time period.
That, again, was not… [pause] It’s frustrating to feel like you don’t have a voice. And with two-and-a-half minute songs that I didn’t write, it’s not my voice. So the rest of my career, however it plays out, I guarantee it will be my voice. That’s why this experience is so exciting. Even though it is “Barbie Doll” — it’s not like we’re changing the world with the lyrics. But it’s a smart little funny, smart-ass, well-written song. And it’s me. It’s what I’ve been doing for 15 years. So with any luck, people will dig it, and if nothing else it’s another 15 million people who are gonna go, “Oh! Who’s that dude?” Or if they knew me, and didn’t know me, they can go, “Oh, wow! I didn’t know he did that.”
What does “Barbie Doll” mean now, a decade down the road from when you first wrote that song?
Well, she’s much funnier. I don’t take it so personally anymore. [laughs] It’s turned from a s—-talkin’ song to a laughin’ at her/with her song. Just talkin’ about her instead of getting my angst out.