Jack Ingram became an "overnight success" in 2005 with his number one charting country single "Wherever You Are," after toiling for a decade in Nashville's fields. Interestingly, he scored that hit with well-heeled indie Big Machine. In 2008 he was named Male Vocalist of the Year at the Country Music Awards. That's compelling, especially in light of the way Big Dreams & High Hopes sounds. For a long time, Ingram was a poet, albeit one that Nashville bigwigs didn't want to hear from. He writes about the tough spot he felt himself in on this set's final track, "In the Corner." He castigates himself, the label that let him go, and friends and fans who tried to pigeonhole him as an "ARTIST." No more. Now, it's true that these songs -- at least the half or so he wrote on this set -- don't much resemble that angry young man who's had a poet's touch and a steely critical eye. They do, however, reflect the sound of a songwriter who knows what it takes to be successful. No more, no less. Big Dreams & High Hopes is the sound of contemporary country music and all of its tropes: the big '70s rock production, the sheen, the compressed guitars and over-amped drums, the perfectly punched vocals, the hooky pop choruses and sound effects that feel like they come from the disco era without the rhythm tracks. That doesn't make it a bad record. Fans of contemporary country music showed their delight from the jump: the massive response that greeted summertime anthem "Barefoot and Crazy," the album's first single, is evidence enough.
As for the rest, Ingram wrote or co-wrote the album's best songs. There's the beautiful ballad "Seeing Stars," a duet with Patty Griffin; "Not Giving Up on Me," a midtempo power ballad about wreckage and redemption; and "Barbie Doll" (co-written with Todd Snider), a solid swaggering street rocker that features Dierks Bentley and Little Big Town. The title track is written in Ingram's older style (despite the presence of Nash Vegas production) -- it's got the elegant simplicity, the simple tune, and the keen insight that brought most of his original fans to his door. And then there's "In the Corner." Big Dreams & High Hopes is the sound of capitulation to Nashville's almighty success mandate. It's the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy at work. Ingram is a distinctive vocalist and -- when he wants to be -- just as singular a songwriter, but it seems he's content to follow in the footsteps of that other great pop country songwriter and guitar picker, Keith Urban. There's nothing wrong with that. Contemporary country fans will eat this up, fill concert halls, and blast it at parties and out of their cars and trucks. Ingram has said in an interview that, though he loves music, "To me it's a job, I go to work and come home like any job." That's what Big Dreams & High Hopes sounds like, too: the work of a fine craftsman who gets all the details right, without a flaw. That said, Ingram's latest doesn't fit the definition of a work by an artist, because this set isn't original in any way. It seems that he can not only live with this compromise, but he freely chose it, and celebrates it here. Good for him.