Chris LeDoux — Doing It the Cowboy Way

CMT's August Showcase Artist Hears Wyoming's Song

Fans of western music and cowboy culture long have known Chris LeDoux as the real-life, “gen-u-wine” rancher and family man who also has had success as a rodeo champion and a musical artist. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s he released 22 albums on his own, establishing a reputation as an underground favorite on the rodeo and western music scenes.

National attention finally came in 1989. A line in Garth Brooks’ first single, “Much Too Young (to Feel This Damn Old),” made reference to “a worn-out tape of Chris LeDoux,” prompting many to ask exactly who LeDoux might be. Capitol Nashville, Brooks’ label, took notice and signed LeDoux to his first major record deal.

Eleven albums (and two gold records) later, the singing cowboy will be featured this month as CMT’s August Showcase Artist. On weekends and Tuesdays, CMT Showcase offers viewers a rare chance to see LeDoux at his Wyoming ranch, talking about his life and music. In interviews, friends and family add their own insights into the man who describes his music as “Roy Rogers meets Led Zeppelin.”

Although he performs primarily in the Western states, LeDoux has ventured east often enough to become known from coast to coast for his highly energetic stage shows. He frequently plays to sell-out crowds. LeDoux’s gold records (for sales of more than 500,000 copies) came for 1993′s Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy (with backing vocals on the title track by Brooks) and 1997′s The Best of Chris LeDoux. On Tuesday (Aug. 1) he released his 33rd project, Cowboy, a collection of 11 cowboy-oriented tunes originally issued on those early, self-released records. Armed with a larger budget and new producers Mac McAnally (Sawyer Brown) and Alan Schulman, he has made new what had been unavailable in the marketplace for years.

Thoroughly entrenched in Wyoming, LeDoux would seem to be a native son, born on a horse in the West. Not so. Instead, he grew up in a military family, moving frequently around the U.S. and overseas.

A child of the post-war era, he was exposed to all kinds of music, but country first turned his head. “The first record I bought was Marty Robbins’ ‘Big Iron,’” he remembers in a recent phone interview from his home in the Cowboy State. “Then there was Johnny Horton and ‘The Battle of New Orleans,’ and Johnny Cash. I guess it was mainly country, but there was some pretty good pop, too, like Buddy Holly and Neil Sedaka. I was always changing the radio station.”

A prolific songwriter known for writing tales of ranch and rodeo life, LeDoux’s first composing efforts were about topics of a more immediate concern to a teenager. “I wrote a couple of songs when I was 15 or 16, about problems I was having in English class,” he laughs. “Eventually, I was starting to rodeo, so I wrote songs about that and just continued to write songs of the things I know about. I’ve slept on the ground, trapped on the mountain, all kinds of stuff. Plus, the love songs I do kind of have to pertain to the relationship I have with my wife, so I can’t do the leaving stuff or the real hurtin’ songs.”

LeDoux and his wife, Peggy, have a bond as strong today as when they were married in 1972. It’s the stuff of fairy tales. “It was all magic,” he says. “We were broke, but it didn’t matter. We were living on love. My wife was, and still is, a great gal. Everything that we have become, and grown together as, comes from those experiences we went through in that first and second year.” On Cowboy, he’s re-recorded “Our First Year,” an account of those early days together on the rodeo circuit. “And if I rode good or bit the dust, she was just as proud,” he sings. “She was happy being by my side.”

The LeDouxs have five children. Eldest son Clay is a rancher like his dad, helping care for the family’s holdings. Second son Ned works as a drummer in LeDoux’s band. Will and Cindy are college students. Youngest son Beau competes in high school and regional rodeo events. All five understand that their father is a former rodeo star and a popular entertainer, but around the house and in their daily lives he’s just plain ol’ Dad, capable of the odd parental gaffe.

“I was in junior high playing volleyball and some girl serves it over and I get smacked in the face with the ball,” daughter Cindy says in her CMT Showcase interview. “There were, maybe, 10 people in the crowd and Dad just screams out, ‘Does it smell like an onion?’ And I was like, “What the heck does that mean?” And I just looked at him. Everyone was laughing, and I was like, ‘OK, please leave.’ He told me later that when you get hit on the nose it’s supposed to smell like an onion or something. I was so embarrassed.”

Though not on the path to becoming a musician himself, Beau enjoys watching his dad onstage, where LeDoux feeds off the energy of his fans. “He gets pretty crazy up there, you know,” Beau observes. “It seems like he might be on something sometimes, but he absolutely is not. He’s got all that pyro and wild dancing and stuff, and he’s just a crazy man.”

His tour mates also attest to the fact that LeDoux is a good-humored sort with a bit of a wild streak. Sawyer Brown’s Mark Miller recounts one occasion when LeDoux caused laughs among bands and crew with a certain dead possum.

“We [got] to the venue to do our sound check and Chris and their guys were already there,” Miller recalls. “I just see this big old trash barrel with a fire in it. Later, it was time for the crew meal. We went in and there was this meat on a stick, and Chris had literally gotten a road kill, skinned it and cooked it for a crew meal. None of us ate it, not even Chris, but he had us going for a while.”

A joker he may be, but LeDoux takes his art seriously. By singing about the rugged, western way of life and about the values held by those who live that life, he hopes to carve out a musical niche in the great landscape of American music. He sees himself in the common-man tradition of Arlo or Woody Guthrie, with his earthy songs set in the context of rodeo, ranch and the West he calls home.

“There was a point that I thought about moving to Nashville,” he concedes, “but I’m glad I didn’t, because what am I going to do when this is all over with? I don’t want to live in town. We have this ranch, and eventually this is what I’m going to be doing. I’d lose the better part of myself if I was to leave all of this behind to only be a singer.”

LeDoux comes across as peacefully contented with who he is and unwilling to try to be anything else. When asked what he music he likes to listen to in his spare time, he quickly answers, “Oh, meadowlarks, doves, owls in the evenings.” His response recalls “Song of Wyoming,” the last track on Cowboy, with its images of drifting clouds, Badlands, birds in the trees and the wind, sounding like “heaven singing” as it moves through the sage.

The song “fits me a little better now than it did years ago,” LeDoux says. “It’s really about a guy who’s getting along in years and enjoying the things that are simple. I love being home, doing the simple things and smelling the sagebrush, seeing the blue sky, enjoying the peace and quiet.”