Jeff Ingraham had good reason to be tired during a recent video chat with GO! Magazine.
The Bend drummer had just stepped offstage in Glasgow, Scotland, after playing a set with Kris Kristofferson and The Strangers, best known as the backing band for late country musician Merle Haggard. But for the last two years, members of The Strangers — including Ingraham, keyboardist/bassist Doug Colosio and fiddler Scott Joss — have backed Kristofferson on the road.
In that short time, Ingraham has toured Europe and shared stages with Shooter Jennings, Tanya Tucker, Dennis Quaid, Tom Johnston of The Doobie Brothers and Marilyn Manson (that unexpected pairing happened in Los Angeles in January). Kristofferson — and Ingraham — will return to the U.S. this month to play the Britt Festival in Jacksonville on Monday and the Athletic Club of Bend on Tuesday before heading back to London to open for Barbra Streisand at Hyde Park.
“I think we have 11 hours to drive tonight,” Ingraham said as he settled into the back of the tour bus for the long ride. “And I woke up this morning with the worst food poisoning that I’ve experienced, and it’s been a brutal day.”
Fortunately, Ingraham was on the mend. (His tips for surviving illness on the road: “All you can do is drink water, maybe take an Alka-Seltzer.” Kristofferson’s wife, Lisa Meyers, also “takes care of pretty much everything,” Ingraham said.)
The seeds of Kristofferson and The Strangers’ current collaboration were sown in 2010, when the singer-songwriter toured with Haggard and The Strangers. “I did probably four or five tours with Merle and Kris, and it was unplugged,” Ingraham said.
Colosio stayed in touch with Meyers over the years.
“We lucked into getting to back Kris,” Ingraham said. “It’s been awesome.”
Ingraham has had a lot of that luck over the course of his career. His first professional gig came when he was 19. His high school friend and lifelong musical partner Kevin Williams, who died in 2014, landed a spot as bass player for Oregon country singer Marty Davis a week after graduating from Mountain View.
Up to that point, Ingraham was mostly a fan of ’70s classic rock, influenced by his older brother and sister. He and Williams had their work cut out for them in Davis’ band.
“We didn’t really know country,” Ingraham said. “We just had to learn on the fly, on the spot, and that’s how we got into the country world.”
Williams eventually joined up with Redding, California-based musician Randy Sloan, and Ingraham soon followed him into that band. This group became the backing band for Haggard’s son, Noel Haggard, in 1986, starting Ingraham’s long association with the Haggard family.
“Finally Kevin got in the Merle band, and I was probably on the phone every week: ‘Hey, does Merle need a drummer yet?’” Ingraham said.
His first stint with The Strangers lasted from 2002 to 2004. One of his first big concerts with the band was playing at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in 2002.
“It sounded great; the energy from that many people was really something,” Ingraham said. “And I was bummed because as soon as we got done, we had to leave. We couldn’t hang out and watch any of the other acts — gotta make it to the next town.”
He was hired again from 2010 to 2012, during which time he recorded on Haggard’s 2011 album “Working in Tennessee” (Ingraham can also be heard on 2003’s “Haggard Like Never Before,” the 2007 Cracker Barrel release “Working Man’s Journey”).
These days, when he’s not on the road with The Strangers, Ingraham continues to gig locally with musicians Bobby Lindstrom, Thomas T. and The Blue Chips and Six Pack. The Strangers also regularly back Haggard’s sons, Noel and Ben Haggard. By this point, Ingraham isn’t fazed by playing the big shows with artists such as Kristofferson.
“The first time you do something like that, it’s like, whoa, crazy,” Ingraham said. “But it’s just part of the deal; you just get used to it.”
The drumming bug seems to run in the family. Ingraham’s son, Andrew Ingraham, plays with local thrash/doom metal band Gravewitch.
“I stayed out of the way and just provided him with the tools,” Ingraham said. “In my selfish thinking, I bought him a bass and I thought he’d be a good bass player and maybe we could do a gig together. And he said, ‘Dad, you can keep the bass; I’m a drummer.’”
Ingraham had some advice for musicians looking to build a career as a sideman: “You have to make up your plan and you need to stick with it and you need to practice and play with passion.” But perhaps most important: “Don’t take no for an answer.”
“It’s a tedious journey, but if you’re stubborn and persistent, you can get the gig,” he continued. “Just being persistent and not turning down playing with anybody. If you stick with your goals and dreams, it’ll happen.”