When Chris Cagle graciously offered to cover the tab for a guy who had forgotten his wallet at a Music Row watering hole, Cagle had no idea his kindness would lead to songwriting lessons from the master.
Cagle bought a drink that day for none other than Harlan Howard. Soon, Cagle was getting song critiques from Howard, and later he had his first song published by the legendary writer. The stroke of luck was just one in a string of fortuituous moments that have led Cagle to his current status as a debut artist on the Virgin Nashville roster.
“I met Harlan my first year here,” recalls Cagle, “and I had no idea who he was at first. Later, I found out Rory Lee was writing for him, and I played him some of my stuff. Harlan drew me a wheel explaining how a good song is written — I still have it on my refrigerator — and told me to go write 10 songs and bring him the 10th. He looked at that one and had me go write some more. Finally, I ended up co-writing one that he published, which was a thrill.”
The tips eventually paid off. Cagle has had a song cut by David Kersh, and he co-wrote eight of the 10 songs on his Virgin debut, Play it Loud, out Tuesday (Oct. 24). The originals include the rollicking first single, “My Love Goes On and On,” which is climbing the charts.
Primed and ready to elbow his way into the country scene with his unique brand of high-octane country rock, Cagle has been itching for this career since he first picked up a guitar at age 6, though it took him a while to muster the courage to pursue it openly.
Always an integral part of Cagle’s life, music was often the glue that held things together when everything else was falling apart. “When I was young, my stepdad was abusive,” he recalls with a faraway look in his eye, “and when you hear and see things like that as a child, you grow up with a lack of confidence, a bunch of insecurities and low self-esteem. But music was always there. That’s what music did for me … it would take me away from a bad situation so that I didn’t have to deal with it the whole time.”
Things improved for Cagle when he moved in with his father and stepmom and began to learn the lessons that would ultimately carry him and his dreams from his native Texas to Nashville. “I went from having no discipline to a lot of discipline,” recalls Cagle, “and it changed my life. I believe the things I learned from my dad have gotten me here.”
His desire to entertain and his sense of fun and mischief shone through early, as in the time in the fourth grade when Cagle and several buddies bought leather jackets, built a cardboard car and performed a number from Grease in the school talent show. Or a year later, when he got sent to the principal’s office for writing a paper citing the Marlboro Man as what he wanted to be when he grew up. “The teacher asked me if I smoked,” recalls Cagle, laughing, “and I said, ‘Not yet.’ And she sent me to the principal’s office! I just thought he was cool, and in every picture he looked like the hero and reminded me of my Paw-Paw.”
After high school, Cagle decided to try performing. He began playing with a band called Texas Heat. The first night he was so nervous he stared at the set list through the entire first song, and the band kept his guitar turned off because his playing was so weak. But he soon improved and was playing the club circuit night after night while daydreaming of Nashville.
In 1994 Cagle packed up his stuff and moved to Music City. He found work as a nanny, a bartender, a caddy and even in construction, until he happened to meet a woman who took an interest in his demos. The woman turned out to be the assistant to Virgin Nashville head Scott Hendricks, and Cagle soon found himself recording his debut. Co-produced by Cagle and Rob Wright, the CD features a healthy mix of uptempo rockers like “Country by the Grace of God,” and the title track “Play it Loud,” and soulful ballads like the poignant “Safe Side” and “Laredo.”
“When I was a teen, we’d park the trucks in this cul-de-sac and play our CDs really loud,” Cagle recalls. “We’d put in George Strait and two-step, but when we wanted to rock we had to put in Def Leppard or the Doobies or whatever. So I wanted to have all of those elements on my CD, so nobody would have to take it out and flip in something else when they wanted to rock. I wanted to have it all on one CD.”
While recording his debut, Cagle also tried to embrace more traditional sounds, but his manager convinced him it was better to be true to himself than to pretend to be something he is not. “He stopped me mid-song and said he didn’t believe what I was singing,” remembers Cagle. “And he reminded me I’m country when I speak, and where I’m from, but that I need to do what moves me and be who I am.”
His manager also encouraged Cagle to bring his own natural energy to the music. “He said, ‘Chris, you don’t walk into a room, you bounce into it. So bounce into my home through this music.’”
Though some would dispute the observation, Cagle will tell anyone who asks that he does not regard himself as a singer of the first rank.
“I get through on just passion and grit,” he says. “I have a sound and can carry a tune, and I believe what I’m saying when I sing. My whole objective in this is to take people to a point of pleasure, or pain, or remembering a great moment in their life … ’cause that’s what music always did for me.”