Chris Cagle's intensity is both his charm and his curse. His shows are the musical equivalent of a nuclear meltdown, and his offstage life is the stuff of headlines. "My dad kind of jokes and says I'm either a 10 or a zero," Cagle observes. "When my head's in something, I'm pretty much all in it."
Cagle's recently-released third album, Anywhere but Here, is his first since being sidelined last year by a severe vocal strain that might have cost him his career. That he has mended nicely, however, is apparent in the control and nuance he brings to his first single from the project, "Miss Me Baby," which climbs to No. 17 this week on Billboard's country singles chart.
Co-produced by Cagle and Robert Wright, Anywhere but Here features four of the singer's own compositions, as well as a cover of Bon Jovi's 1987 rocker, "Wanted Dead or Alive."
Cagle says the awareness that something ominous was happening to his voice dawned on him gradually. "I knew something was different," he explains. "There were certain notes that I had to all of a sudden reach for as opposed to just kind of grabbing. ... It was like a little headache in your throat."
When he finally consulted a doctor, Cagle continues, the warning was grim. "He told me if I kept going on the path I was on, I would paint myself into a corner from which there was no return. So I was pretty fearful."
Convinced he had reached a crisis, Cagle stayed off the stage and out of the studio for the next three months. To keep himself occupied, he says, "I went and shoveled horse crap for free at a horse farm [in Nashville]."
During this time off, he stayed completely away from all things musical, even declining to write songs. "I missed it," he says, "and, then again, I didn't, you know? There was a big upside to [being off]. You got to really live, to just be you." He says he missed the crowds but not "Music Row and all that crap. That's the stuff I didn't miss at all."
Uncertain if he would ever get his voice back, Cagle could muster no interest in writing songs. "It's not that I wasn't able to," he explains. "I didn't really want to. I wanted to heal. It didn't matter what I wrote while I was off, even if it was the biggest song in the history of country music. If I couldn't sing it, it didn't matter."
It was not having too few of his own songs, though, that limited him on the new album. "Obviously, I didn't write songs that were good enough to be on the record," he says with a chuckle. Cagle acknowledges that it felt good to be back in the studio. With his voice in shape, he completed the album in about two months.
Just as his album was being released, Cagle made news by issuing a press statement that ranged somewhere between strange and gratuitous. "As many of you are aware," it said, "I had been anxiously awaiting the addition of a new baby to my life. The baby has been born, and both mother and child are in good health. Since the birth, however, we have discovered that biologically, the child is not mine." After revealing a fact that no one needed -- or necessarily wanted -- to know, he added, "Please allow this situation to remain private." CMT.com chose to honor that request.
Since then, Cagle has been touring and promoting the album at country radio stations.
"We're out there hitting it hard," Cagle says of his latest round of touring. "We've just started playing some of the new songs from the record. We're getting really big responses from 'Wal-Mart Parking Lot' and 'Anywhere but Here.'" In spite of the vocal scare, Cagle says he has no impulse to hold back vocally on stage. "No," he insists. "You can't."
To the degree that he relaxes at all, he says, it's in the saddle. "When I go ride horses, there's the same kind of intensity. But it's fun. A lot of times, when you're in the middle of working a cow or when you're on a fence or something, you don't have a chance to think about anything other than what you're doing."
If Cagle remains intense, he took comfort in October when the first-week sales of Anywhere but Here exceeded the initial sales of his first two albums.
"I'm really satisfied with the record," he says. "At first, I was a little nervous and anxious. But the response I've been getting has really, really been good. I can honestly say that I don't know if it's the best work I've ever done or ever will do, but it's the best I could come up with at the time. I'm pretty proud of it."