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They met at the University of Memphis; they're named for a Mississippi highway sign; and now they're poised to hit the big time: Meet Ingram Hill, the city's hardest-working modern-rock band. The band has been kicking around town for four years now. Two years ago, the group released its first CD, the EP Until Now. They've toured incessantly, landed radio play throughout the Southeast, and, last winter, signed to Hollywood Records.

"The best way to get big in Memphis is to do things outside of Memphis," says Justin Moore, the band's 24-year-old lead singer. "That's the stand that we took. We got out and played those Mississippi college towns -- Oxford and Starkville, the whole fraternity circuit. Most of the students there come from Memphis, so that made it easy for us to play at home during the holidays."

"We beat the crap out of Mississippi, Alabama, and East Tennessee until we reached the point where we could not only have a big show in Memphis; we could also afford to make a living outside of the city. It was rough at first," Moore admits. "We've done our fair share of really crappy gigs, but it's paid off. Eventually, people started buying our albums."

They bought 'em in droves: Ingram Hill sold more than 10,000 copies of their debut CD. The momentum allowed Moore and his bandmates -- guitarist Phil Bogard, bassist Shea Sowell, and drummer Matt Chambless -- to leave their studies behind. It also brought the attention of several record labels eager to sign the next Creed or Three Doors Down.

"We'd been talking with the Hollywood guys, along with some other labels, for the last year and a half," Moore explains. "But it wasn't until we made our new record [June's Picture Show] that we began to have serious talks."

"[Hollywood Records] seemed like home," Moore says. "Their vibe and the enthusiasm were unmatched by any of the other labels. When we found out that they were that excited and eager to make us successful, we couldn't say no. You know," he continues, "you can force people to listen to you, but you can't counterfeit genuine enthusiasm."

Moore credits producers Rick Beato and Emerson Hart (who also fronts the band Tonic) with teaching the group about songwriting: "Those guys helped us take huge steps." He cautions, however, that the best way to get ahead in the biz is "just being in it."

"We're continuing to tour our butts off," Moore says. True to his word, he's calling from Cincinnati, Ohio, where Ingram Hill is appearing in a showcase for the National Association of College Activities, hoping to bag more high-profile, good-money gigs on university campuses. It's just another stop on a lengthy tour, however, which paired the band with Better Than Ezra last week. A few days from now, they'll head south with blues rocker Jonny Lang.

"It's cool that we have that mass appeal and that we're versatile enough to play on different bills," Moore says, citing Saliva, Lisa Marie Presley, O.A.R., Michelle Branch, and Lifehouse among the artists Ingram Hill has shared the stage with. "Last year's Rubber Meets the Road Tour was the first time we'd been with the same bands [the Clarks, Ari Heat, and Pseudopod] for so many dates. We became great friends with those guys, but it was weird. [It] almost became a routine. Now we're back to doing something different every day."

"Sometimes when we're playing with another band we're not sure whether or not the audience is gonna be cool," Moore says. "Every time we've played with Saliva we've kinda held our breath, but their crowds have really dug us. We're just rock enough."

And now he has to get back to work. June's Picture Show is set to drop this week, and, Moore explains, "We lost a lot of time over the holidays, so right now we can't afford to lose any momentum." He and his bandmates are focusing on the road until April, when the album will be added to radio.

"But we're not trying to base our whole career on a potential radio hit," Moore adds. "You can cite a few bands who made it that way, but there are hundreds who have failed. Hopefully, we'll keep moving in the right direction."

Fingers crossed, we'll all be hearing a lot more from Ingram Hill soon.

E-mail: localbeat@memphisflyer.com

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