"Man, this comeback stuff's a little hard on the ego," Chris Cagle admitted Monday night (June 25) on the eve of the release of his aptly titled new album, Back in the Saddle. It comes almost 12 years after he debuted with Play It Loud, an album that went on to produce two Top 10 hits, "Laredo" and "I Breathe In, I Breathe Out."
So why the need for a comeback?
"I've got dreams that are not paid for," he said. "I've got kids. I've got a wife. I'm not complaining. I'm willing to go through whatever I've gotta go through to get back to that place. I got up the mountain before, but I lost my footing. To get back up there, it's gonna take some time. Show by show, day by day."
The footing Cagle lost had to do with some high highs and low lows throughout his first 10 years in the business. When Capitol Records absorbed his initial record label, Virgin Records Nashville, he recalled the new boss telling him, "I don't like your music, and I wouldn't have signed you."
Then from 2004 until 2006, Cagle was in a legal dispute with his manager at the time.
"I fired him and sued him and somehow lost that case. I'm not as big of an asshole as I used to be, but I was hard to work for," he admitted to CMT.com in an interview before his show at Joe's Bar in Chicago.
Also setting him back was a string of vocal problems -- vocal rest in 2004 for a polyp, a lesion, a cyst and a granuloma on his vocal cords, then surgery in 2011. With all those issues resolved, he feels like his voice is better than ever.
Back in the Saddle, released by Bigger Picture Group, was produced by Keith Stegall, known for his work with Alan Jackson and the Zac Brown Band. Cagle co-wrote five of the songs with several of Nashville's best writers. The ones he didn't write came from the notebooks of other greats, including Casey Beathard and Brett and Brad Warren's "I'll Grow My Own."
"They sent over a big ol' hit with that one," Cagle predicted of the old-fashioned-and-proud-of-it anthem of self-sufficiency.
Cagle, his wife Kay and their daughters (Stella, 2, and Piper, 1, and Cagle's stepdaughter Chloe, 8) make their home in a double-wide in Love County, Okla.
"We have a modest cutting-horse ranch. It's a modular home," he laughed, knowing the possible stigma attached to living in a mobile home. "But it's the coziest place I've ever lived in my life."
And while working with his 16 horses is good exercise, he says it's not enough.
"I'm 55-60 pounds overweight. I'm not young anymore. I'm gonna suck it up, and flip the switch," he said, resolved to make the healthy changes he needs to be on the road bringing his new music to his fans.
As for the new album, Cagle says, "It's like a listening journal. I started 'Southern Girl' originally about Stella, but then I saw Kay out on the back deck watering plants, and I was like, 'Man.' Then I wrote 'Dance Baby Dance' about the kids.
"Then 'Something That Wild' is about she and I when we first started dating [four years ago]. That paints us nicely," he said of the album's autobiographical theme. His current single, "Let There Be Cowgirls," even mentions his wife by name.
While the album may be packed with songs about Cagle's new life, it's got plenty of other themes, including whiskey, heartbreak, mama, hell-raisin' and trucks. And a heavy dose of piano, Dobro, lap steel, fiddle and mandolin.
So if it's a comeback, he may be going all the way back to his debut album's sound. And that's the sound that created the most success for him from 2000 until 2003. His Anywhere but Here album in 2005 failed to produce any Top 10 hits, and his last album, My Life's Been a Country Song only had one, "What Kinda Gone." And that was released five years ago.
Cagle is committed to succeeding again.
"When I look at myself in the mirror, I say, 'You might not get another chance,'" he said. "The truth is, though, I made it farther than anyone ever thought I would. If I really wanna sing, I can get a van, I can get three musicians, and we can go up and down the road in Texas and Oklahoma and make $400,000 a year and have fun. Like I did in the old days. But right now, for the first time, I have a group of people banging the Chris Cagle drum. That feels good."