A Cowboy for the Ages

Chris LeDoux brought the grit of the rodeo arena to the bright lights of Nashville.
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Chris LeDoux brought the grit of the rodeo arena to the bright lights of Nashville.
Credit: photo by Marc Morrison/Wonderful Machine

Credit: photo by Marc Morrison/Wonderful Machine

When I was a youngster, every Saturday Mom would send us kids to the movie theater to watch the matinee. For 50 cents, we bought our tickets, a large popcorn, and a soda. Then for hours, we cheered on Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and even Sky King (a cowboy with an airplane!). Through these movie heroes, we learned the difference between right and wrong, and we learned “the cowboy way” of thinking.

As I grew up and realized these men were actors playing roles, a measure of my innocence died; however, I’ve always looked at personal situations and considered how those old Western characters would respond. While these scripted characters made good heroes, I felt it was impossible for any real human to be so good and pure, yet so tough and indestructible.

Then I met Chris LeDoux. I knew immediately that Chris was the real thing. Whether in rodeo, the music industry, or facing death, Chris LeDoux was not playing a character for film. He was a real cowboy’s cowboy. Knowing him personally, he became more powerful and more impressive than any character ever created for the big screen. And, he was real.

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It was the early 1980s when I first met Chris in Salt Lake City. He was performing in concert at the (then) Salt Palace, opening for country music legend Don Williams. His rodeo days were over, although mine were just beginning, and I was asked to write a story about Chris, the cowboy and his music, for a rodeo newspaper. It was not my first time meeting a famous recording artist, so I had some idea of what I was walking into. But, if I was expecting the glitz, glamour, and superstar treatment, I was jolted back to reality the minute I saw Chris. He came to pick me up at the airport and was driving an old Ford Galaxy, belching smoke and with the muffler rattling. He had brought the whole family down from Wyoming, and the car was full of kids’ toys, clothes, and trash—just like a rodeo family on a Fourth of July run. I suddenly felt right at home with Chris, almost as if we were there to ride bucking horses together instead of him entertaining thousands of screaming fans. I knew I had never met anyone like this man, Chris LeDoux, and even then, I knew I would never meet another like him.

My curiosity was piqued; I just had to learn more about this man, and how, from his own humble beginnings, his life took on such legendary proportions. How did he get to the top and still keep his integrity intact? Where did the legend begin? And then, I listened… and that’s when I knew I had to tell the world about this amazing man.

From an early age, LeDoux had a goal in mind. At 10 years old, his father brought him to his first-ever Cheyenne Frontier Days. Within weeks, LeDoux was back. He led his little buckskin pony, Comanche, into a deserted Frontier Days arena and loaded him into a bucking chute. In his mind, he saw the grandstands filled with people. He nodded his head and threw open the gate himself, imagining he was aboard Harry Vold’s renowned bucker Necklace in the short-go at the big rodeo. But LeDoux wasn’t just pretending to ride that day, he was pretending to win the “Daddy of ’Em All.”

The fire burning inside Chris, after that day at Cheyenne, drove him to chase his gold-buckle dreams on the real rodeo circuit. From Little Britches Rodeos through High School and college rodeos then directly into the professional ranks, Chris won championship buckles and titles as he learned to beat the best. He had to overcome debilitating injuries, and learned dozens and dozens of lessons “the hard way” as he went along, but Chris kept finding ways to stay on the rodeo trail.

In 1976, Chris’s persistence paid off when he became the PRCA’s World Champion Bareback Rider. He got married to a lovely young cowgirl named Peggy, started a fine family with the birth of his first son, Clay, and had a Wyoming ranch and some livestock and horses to graze upon it. His dreams had been realized.

I looked forward to each visit with my newfound cowboy hero. Although Chris had put his rigging bag away and dragged out his guitar, he was still very much in demand on the rodeo trail. Most of his concerts, in those days, were during major rodeos, such as Cheyenne, Ft. Worth, and Austin, and since I was still riding bucking horses, I ran into him often during the year. And each time we met, he had new stories to tell and new, magical spells to weave with his music. I wanted to share some of the wonderful stories he told by writing a few magazine articles about him. And Chris agreed.

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LeDoux first began writing rodeo songs while he was still riding on the college circuit in the late 1960s, and he was always a hit whenever some cowboys and cowgirls gathered to pass a guitar around somewhere.

In 1970, he had the idea that, if he recorded some of his songs, he could sell a few of the tapes along the trail and pick up some gas money. He shared this idea with his father, Al, who agreed with Chris, and together, they formed the American Cowboy Songs record label.

The first ACS album was Songs of Rodeo Life, released in 1971, featuring “Bareback Jack” and “Copenhagen,” songs that would later become his trademarks. It was a true family business: Al ran the company; Chris’s mother, Bonnie, was in charge of production (often hand-winding 8-track cassettes); and Chris’s siblings helped sell tapes and albums. By the time he won the World Championship in 1976, Chris already had six albums to his credit, and American Cowboy Songs had become one of the most successful independent record labels ever.

Chris entered his last rodeo in 1984, and decided to put that part of his life behind him. He had a thriving ranch, a terrific family, and planned to focus his energy toward his musical career instead of rodeo.

“One good thing about music,” Chris observed with a wry smile, “It’s not nearly as hard on your body as pulling on a bareback riggin’.”

His guitar became a way of life as surely as his bareback rigging had once been. And the dedication and effort he put into the music was no less than that which had won him a world championship in rodeo. It was the Cowboy Way—the only way Chris knew to live.

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In 1985, I was entered in the rookie bronc riding at Cheyenne, and I knew Chris would be selling his records and tapes at a booth under the grandstands. At the time, I was living near Seattle, Wash., and it was a 20-hour drive to Cheyenne. I loaded my rig and organized all 14 of Chris’s cassette tapes in the order that they were recorded. And on the drive to Cheyenne that year, I listened to all the music he had released up to that point in the order he had released it.

When I saw Chris at the rodeo grounds, he asked if I had found another story from his music for a new magazine article. My response even surprised me: “I think we need to do a book,” I told Chris. “You’ve told your whole life’s story through your music. All I need to do is fill in the dates and names, and we’ll have a great book.”

“Aw, shoot. Who’d want to read about me?” he responded.

I told him I didn���t even know if I could write the thing, as I had never written a book before, but it didn’t seem too complicated to me, and I figured we could get it done.

I didn’t learn until many years later that, when I told Chris I wanted to write a book about him, he didn’t think I could actually do it. He was just “humoring me” by letting me do the interviews. But, somewhere along the way, both of us became convinced that book was going to happen.

Gold Buckle Dreams: The Rodeo Life of Chris LeDoux was released in hardback in June, 1987, and it didn’t do badly. The original release told the story of Chris’s rodeo dream, ending in 1976, when he won the world championship. His music was gaining momentum, but he was still just selling tapes under grandstands. At the time, his music was simply part of his mystique as an exceptional cowboy; we didn’t figure it defined him.

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Somehow, an aspiring country-music singer named Garth Brooks got ahold of a Chris LeDoux tape. His debut song, “Much too Young (to Feel This Damn Old)”—which skyrocketed up the country charts—included a mention of a “worn-out tape of Chris LeDoux.” Of course, anyone who had been around a rodeo arena long enough recognized the name drop, but most of Nashville was in the dark. Jimmy Bowen, of Liberty Records, started asking around and found out that Chris LeDoux was a star waiting to shine. He signed LeDoux to a recording contract and bought up all the original master tapes of LeDoux’s previous recordings on the American Cowboy Songs label.

While LeDoux already had more than 20 albums to his credit, in as many years of recording, to a lot of folks he was still an “overnight success.” LeDoux’s first album with Liberty, which included the hit singles “Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy,” a duet with Garth Brooks, and “Cadillac Ranch,” soon went gold, and then double gold. Liberty also re-released CDs of all of LeDoux’s earlier ACS albums, including his trademark singles “This Cowboy’s Hat,” and “Copenhagen,” which flooded a hungry marketplace with authentic cowboy music. His concerts were routinely sold out, and his schedule jumped from a dozen concerts a year to a peak of more than 200 engagements.

In the beginning, LeDoux was terrified of the stage. Once, before a concert in Salt Lake City in 1985, Chris was pointing out where, in the same building, they would position holding pens and bucking chutes for the big rodeo. He then admitted to being quite nervous.

“Shoot, I’d rather be taping up for a rodeo right now,” he said.

It took a decade for LeDoux to find comfort in the bright lights. He honed his stage show and live performances to the point that the energy flowed back and forth between himself and his audience like the constant pounding of waves on the seashore. He incorporated pyrotechnics and an amazing array of lights into the concerts to make his shows among the most thrilling and spectacular in country music. A young Garth Brooks watched that show and later admitted that his own stage show was drawn from the ideas he learned, or copied, from Chris.

“I stole my whole act from Chris,” Brooks said.

With Chris’s success in the recording industry, his income increased sharply, and, in typical cowboy style, LeDoux paid off his ranch, set some money aside for his children’s education, built a new house on the old homestead, and bought some new white-faced cattle. Aside from that, and a busy travel schedule, LeDoux remained steadfastly the same person he was when he was dirt-poor, chasing his rodeo dream. He never let success and celebrity in the music business change his cowboy character.

“Those people out there,” LeDoux said peering out at the crowd gathered to watch the Austin (Texas) Pro Rodeo (to be followed by his concert), “they won’t ever let me forget where I came from. Some of them took me in when I was starving, and gave me and some of the other guys a place to sleep when we needed it. You can never forget kindness like that. It’s a part of who I am now, and that will never change.”

When asked if he would ever consider a move to Nashville, or other more popular areas for entertainers to live, LeDoux was always quick to respond.

“Wyoming is my home,” he said without hesitation. “I can’t ever picture me not being there. Nashville has been good to me, and I think it’s a great place to visit...”

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It was the summer of 2000 when friends, family, and bandmates began to notice that Chris was losing stamina and couldn’t perform with the same intensity he once had. Always trim and athletic, Chris had lost a lot of weight and his skin was beginning to show a yellowish discoloration.

“By the time we played the last show of that year, on September 25th, boy he was sick,” said Mark Sissel, Chris’s road manager and the lead guitarist for LeDoux’s band, Western Underground.

He was diagnosed with chronic liver disease, or in medical terms, primary sclerosing colongitis. LeDoux was told he would need a liver transplant within six months, or he’d be riding into his final sunset.

“When I heard about the liver disease, I thought ‘Well, you deserve some bad luck, you’ve had such a great time,’” said Chris with characteristic humility and humor. “I figured it was my turn to bear a cross.”

Friends rushed to his aid. Brooks even volunteered his own liver.

“Chris needs something, and I owe everything I have to Chris LeDoux,” Brooks said. “I’m your man.”

As it turned out, Brooks was not a match.

“There were some moments that got pretty dark there (at the transplant care unit) … and because all the stuff happened so fast, we didn’t know what to do or how to feel,” recalls Chris’s son Ned, who plays drums in Western Underground. “But something just lit our way through it all.”

While fans played a part, the flame that kept Chris alive was Peggy. She never left his room during his two-month stay at the Nebraska Health System University Hospital. Then, on Oct. 7, 2000, Chris received the life-saving liver transplant that he needed. On Oct. 8, he was walking around and watching football. By Thanksgiving, Chris was home back at the ranch with his family in Kaycee, Wyo.

As quickly as he could, Chris went back to touring and recording music. He had survived the first go-around, and his performances became even more physical and dynamic. He even added his old mechanical bucking horse to the act.

Within five years, though, Chris went on to battle a rare cancer called cholangiocarcinoma, which affects the bile ducts. After complications from chemotherapy, Chris finally let go of the reins on March 9, 2005, at the Casper Medical Center in Wyoming. At the time of his passing, Chris was surrounded by Peggy, his children, Clay, Ned, Will, Beau, and Cindy, and his mother, Bonnie.

Although Chris’s small, private funeral was held on his ranch, attended only by family and close friends, the great cowboy singer’s passing was mourned nationwide and beyond.

Capitol Nashville President and CEO Mike Dungan said of Chris, “In a world of egos and sound-alikes, he was a unique artist and a wonderful man. We have always been proud to represent his music and honored to call him our friend.”

Today, LeDoux’s in nearly half-a-dozen halls of fame, and has a festival, rodeo, and park in his hometown of Kaycee named for him and legions of adoring fans.

But more than that, Chris left a legacy of lessons about character, determination, and honesty, which we need to remember more than ever in this age of “anything goes.” And now, nearly 10 years after his death, I still hold on to my own “Chris LeDoux Standard.” Any time I reach a difficult situation, I just ask myself, “How would Chris handle this?” and I immediately know the correct answer.