Chris Cagle is a blunt instrument. He doesn't hedge his comments, whether he's talking about the disappointing sales of his last album or recalling a humiliating betrayal by an ex-girlfriend. He's a journalist's joy and a media trainer's nightmare.
For his new and fourth album, My Life's Been a Country Song, the singer enlisted industry veteran Scott Hendricks as his co-producer. Hendricks is also the man who signed Cagle to his first record deal at the Virgin Nashville label. Robert Wright had co-produced Cagle's earlier efforts.
"There was no discontent with anybody," Cagle asserts. "It was just time to make a change. When you make three records in a row, the first two go gold -- and the third one doesn't -- it's time to figure something else."
This is also the first album on which Cagle has none of his own songs, a remarkable departure from form. He wrote or co-wrote his first eight chart singles, among them the No. 1 "I Breathe In, I Breathe Out" and the Top 5 "What a Beautiful Day" and "Chicks Dig It."
"Scott sat me down," Cagle explains, "and said, 'We need better material. That what the critics say.' And I thought, 'Excuse me!'" It turned out that Hendricks had sifted through Cagle's old reviews, where the most common complaint had been the singer's choice of songs.
"Maybe I'm not as good a writer as I thought I was," Cagle muses, "which is OK. But sometimes it's a hard pill to swallow." He credits Hendricks with giving him the "validity" to attract songs from Nashville's top composers. Contributing to the album are such hitmongers as Dave Berg, George Teren, Craig Wiseman, Brett James, Tom Shapiro, Wendell Mobley, Neil Thrasher, John Wiggins and Monty Criswell.
"What Kinda Gone," Cagle's first single from the new CD, was co-penned by Berg, Candy Cameron and Chip Davis, and is currently No. 11 in Billboard. It's his highest charting song in five years.
Cagle admits his habit of recording mostly his own songs has worked against him.
"Craig Wiseman actually said this to me one time," he notes. "I said, 'Hey man, give me a hit.' And he goes, 'Why? You write them and put them out yourself.' He said, 'Why am I going to give you a song you might not release? I need to make money.' It made sense."
Hendricks also brought a different approach to recording.
"I never had a script when I went in to make a record," Cagle says. "I walked in and I kind of read the people there. Was everybody laughing? Was everybody solemn? Was it quiet? What kind of mood were they projecting? If it was solemn and everybody was kind of quiet and chilled out, I would go with the ballads. If everybody was laughing and cutting up and telling jokes and all that stuff, I would go with an uptempo song."
Hendricks was more deliberate, Cagle says, with a clear pre-production plan and a way of involving the musicians more in the creative process.
"We listened to over 4,200 songs -- and I mean listened to them," Cagle reports. "He'd send me 70 CDs and say, 'Hey man, we've got a week for these.' And I go like, 'Oh, that's a lot of music.' And he'd say, 'Yeah, that's what we do.'"
Cagle confesses he has limited patience when it comes to recording.
"The studio is very boring," he declares. "[It's] a monotonous, redundant place. But it has to be. You've got to take the time to piece together a platform and a foundation that's sturdy enough for you to stand on for a year and a half or two years. That's usually what you're doing. You're out supporting an album [for that long] because of the slowness of radio right now. It's taking 36 to 42 weeks for even a B-level act to get to the top of the charts. I'm not complaining. That's just the way it is."
Unlike most artists, Cagle doesn't road test songs before recording them.
"It may sound selfish, but the bottom line is that I've got to be the one who says, 'I love this music. I want to sing this for the next 15 years, God willing.' I'm not going to go ask anybody else. It's not a Chris Cagle and friends record. Yes, I do make the music for the fans. Yes, I hope they buy it. But if I can't sell it, if I don't enjoy it, if I can't hear it and want to sing it over and over, forget about it."
Early in Cagle's career, the media seemed to be all over him. But then he virtually disappeared, save for launching an occasional single. He says he had a good reason for taking cover.
"The last couple of years, man, I just came off of a frickin' [situation] with a girl having a baby," he explains. "I told everybody I was going to be a father, and I find out a week later that the baby's not mine. I didn't want to be visible. Who would? I was at the ranch hearing DJs making fun of me on the radio. It was humiliating. ... No matter what you've done in the past, no matter how good or grand you were as an entertainer or as the life of the party or whatever, the moment s**t goes wrong, some [people] swim up to the blood like sharks and kick you while you're bleeding."
He remembers listening to a DJ announce on the air, "We're going to dedicate this one to Chris Cagle," as an introduction to Toby Keith's "Who's Your Daddy."
"It was all I could do to keep from getting in the truck and driving up there and whipping his ass," Cagle says. "I didn't want to be in the media. I wanted it to go away. My God, I became a drunk and gained 65 pounds as a result of it. I didn't care. My third record was called Anywhere but Here because I didn't give a s**t. I didn't want to be in this business anymore."
Life is considerably sunnier now, Cagle says. "I made it through. It's cool, it's good, I'm fine, I'm OK. ... I've got a girlfriend now who's a great girl."
In December, police in Tucson, Ariz., cited Cagle for punching a man in the face following a charity show in Tucson. According to investigators, an angry woman insisted that Cagle keep signing autographs for her -- even though he had already signed several items she presented to him. When he declined, she began to call him names, and he allegedly struck her boyfriend. Because of possible legal entanglements, he won't tell his side of the story -- at least not on record. But he does say, "It may not have been the right thing, but it was the thing to do at the time."
Cagle is still waiting to see if he'll be booked to perform at the CMA Music Festival in June, but he does plan a big blowout for his fans, the Cagleheads, during that event.
"It's not going to be, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Chris Cagle,' and then you come up and shake my hand and take a picture with me. I'm going to tell them, 'Put your cameras up, put your autograph pens up. For the next three hours, I'm going to come and hang out with you. I want to talk to you about life. I want to be among you and with you.' Then, at the end of the day, we'll do the meet and greet and the pictures and I'll play."
Cagle says his fans have sustained him through the bad times -- and that he still depends on them for support.
"No matter how bad some people in this business might want to forget me," he says, "the Cagleheads ain't gonna let it happen."