Jack Ingram does the best version of “Desperados Waiting for a Train” that’s not by Guy Clark and I’ll stand on Steve Earle’s coffee table in Jerry Jeff Walker’s cowboy boots and say that.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Ingram’s latest, Ridin’ High … Again, is a nod to Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1975 classic, Ridin’ High. Like its inspiration, Ridin’ High …. Again is split between impassioned covers of mostly Texas singer-songwriters and originals that share in their spirit. Produced by Jon Randall Stewart and recorded over three days in Austin with a group of players that includes Austin legend Charlie Sexton on guitar (both Stewart and Sexton were involved in Ingram’s 2016 moody and magnificent Midnight Motel), Ingram’s latest is a sprawling celebration of, and tribute to, the free-wheeling 1970s progressive/outlaw country movement.
Ridin’ High … Again is the sound of a three-day party where even the few quiet introspective moments are more celebratory than sullen. The originals are wisely sequenced around the covers, and it’s a testament to Ingram’s talent as well as his love of the material that they all fit together so seamlessly. His “Staying Out of Jail,” for example, boasts a strong Robert Earl Keen vibe, with its laid-back Texas groove and perspicacious lyrics, while the sublime “Sailor & the Sea” works both as a personal tribute to Ingram’s grandfather and as a tip of the hat to Guy Clark. It’s one of the highlights of the album. There’s also a stripped-down, soulful take on “Tin Man,” the 2018 Academy of Country Music (ACM) Song of the Year Ingram co-wrote with Stewart and Miranda Lambert, originally released on Lambert’s acclaimed The Weight of These Wings.
The covers include a half-time jam of Willie Nelson’s classic “I Gotta Get Drunk” (which always seemed to have a touch of regret behind its good-time façade); a driving “Down the Road Tonight,” Hayes Carll’s Dylanesque stream-of-consciousness rocker; and a spirited run-through of Rusty Wier’s classic “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance” — more Jerry Jeff than Urban Cowboy.
There are a few moments where the party atmosphere starts to wear thin, like when your stoned buddy starts telling a long and winding tale that eventually loses the plot, causing you to wander off in search of more chicken wings. “Where There’s a Willie” is one such tale. The point is made in the first two-to-three minutes, yet it hangs around for an interminable eight-plus — complete with two false endings and bong sound effects. Elsewhere, tackling Delaney Bramlett’s evergreen “Never Ending Song of Love” is always welcome, but this version ventures beyond “loose” toward the possible need for an intervention.
But then there’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” which stands as the best moment on the album, as well as one of the best performances of Ingram’s career. He seems to get inside the song like no one since Clark while the band positively burns throughout, building in intensity like, well, an old steam train. When the payoff line comes at the end, it’s finally literal in a way that makes you smile all the more.
Closing with a funky, timely take on Kris Kristofferson’s “Jesus Was a Capricorn,” Ingram ends Ridin’ High … Again on a … um … high note, while pointing out the hypocrisy of judging those different than us at a time we need to hear it — and heed it — more than ever.