The year was 1976 and a bareback bronc named Stormy Weather did his best to shake a Wyoming cowboy. When the dust settled in the arena Chris LeDoux won the buckle for World Champion. He’s the real deal. While travelling to rodeos he helped pay his way with his other talent – writing and performing songs. He sold tapes at the rodeos to follow competitors and word of mouth brought a demand. Then one day he’s driving down the road and on the radio there’s a “pretty good cowboy song” come on…the new artist was singing of the trials of being a rodeo rider. “…The competition’s getting younger; tougher bronce I’ve never known…a worn out tape of Chris LeDoux, lonely women and bad booze seem to be the only friends…” The artist, of course, was Garth Brooks…and Chris’ life changed.
Chris LeDoux passed away in March 2005 from complications from liver cancer. He danced with mortality each ride on the rodeo circuit, and in a serious manner when he battled a liver illness that threatened his life and required a transplant. He recovered, and recorded “After The Storm”. He returned to touring and working on his ranch. “Horsepower” was recorded – and it would become the last CD he would record.
Some reports stated Chris had sold thousands of tapes before ever landing a recording deal with a major label. With dozens of releases picking ten songs is a tough task. His most meaningful? The biggest sellers? The greatest hits? The criteria is probably up to the individual but there’s a list that seems to define Chris and the cowboy life he loved.
“The Light Of The World” from the “Haywire” CD is a tribute to every day small acts of kindness – the waitress who looks the other way to help a hungry person, the trucker who gives a boy a ride in the storm…”There’s a small light in the dark night – human kindness deep inside us. If you see it in somebody’s eyes there’s no reason to be so surprised…”
“Look At You Girl” shows the tender side of a man totally and completely in love with his wife. It’s on several of his releases including the “Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy” CD and is very simple in content…but powerful when sung to or dedicated to someone. “You mean everything to me…and I’d do anything to have you stay forever..I’m an ordinary man but I feel like I can do anything in the world when I look at you girl. This could very easily be (and has been) a song played at weddings.
“Seventeen” is one of many Chris did about the every day working cowboy. It’s a coming of age song – a young man finding independence heading out on the road to ride bulls. “…The sweet voice of freedom echos down the ages…” is the thing that binds those who live for the rodeo. “When he was five years old his mom took him down to the round corral to work with a horse named Smokey and man did that horse buck…” gives the impression of a child that grows into a young man confined by the routine work on a ranch. The simple guitar work backs up a simple song but each line adds to the story. One doesn’t need to be a rodeo rider to relate to Chris’ songs. Sometimes life is a bigger ride than broncs and bulls.
“Thank The Cowboy For The Ride” depicts a lifelong love of cowboys, starting with a child and on through life to adulthood. “He was pushin’ seven she was barely five he rode up on his broomstick horse and said ‘you want a ride?'” Like many of Chris’ songs this could be at face value or symbolic. “He’s almost 67 and she’ll admit to 49 he still loves her like a child and she still feels the same…” “she never fails to say before they go to sleep each night ‘I love ya cowboy thank you for the ride.'”
“Call Of The Wild” – if there was a song used to depict painting word pictures this song of a quest for freedom is surely it. It starts with the lone howl and a crack of thunder. “Storm clouds are building above the timberline the lightning’s flashing across the mountainside” and “the bugle of the bull elk echos through the pines the north wind moans her lonesome lullaby he hungers for the freedom of the eagle as he glides…” puts the listener mentally somewhere in the Rockies far from the city. The subject is looking to leave the city – “livin’ in the city oh it gets to be a grind, puttin’ in his hours, workin’ overtime”. Very well done.
“You Just Can’t See Him From The Road” – The cowboy tradition is still alive and well. For those in the city they think it’s an outdated concept. Cowboys aren’t on the big screen, as noted in the first line, and appearances aren’t accurate. “But he’s still out there ridin’ fences, still makes his livin’ with his rope; as long as there’s a sunset he’ll keep ridin’ for the brand you just can’t see him from the road.” “He’s had one or two good horses that he counts among his friends he never drew a breath that wasn’t free.” The cowboy code remains and time passes but there are still honest, genuine people out there if we get off the information highway and the interstates and look.
“Some Things Never Change” – life goes on ranch. This duet with Garth from the “After The Storm” cd was done after Chris’ liver transplant. “Long gone are the cattle drives since they brought in the trains but the hard work and the friendship still remain.” “Out here where nature rules each day’s a different battle and it still takes a man workin’ in the saddle…” is a reminder even with all the technology we have there are some things machines and computers can’t do…people are still needed and irreplacable.
“Western Skies” is CHRIS. The encouragement to move to Nashville and a long list of reasons set to music of the things that bound him, and others, to the mountains and the praries of the west. He always remained in Wyoming and true to his own identity. “If they ever saw a sunrise on a mountain morning or watch those cotton candy clouds they’d know why I live beneath these western skies”. The last lines came up a great deal after his death…although he’d done this song for years. “I love Tennessee but you know it just ain’t my style I gotta be where I can see those Rocky Mountains, ride my horse and watch an eagle fly…I gotta live my life, write my songs beneath these western skies…and when I die you can bury me beneath these western skies.”
“I Believe In America” – “This country’s seen some hard times Lord knows she’s deep in debt she’s comin’ through another depression and for some it ain’t over yet…we’ve all been divided by our own selfish games. Why’s it always take the hard times to bring people back together again?” This song has been totally overlooked in the wave of patriotic songs following 9/11 even though it was done long before then. It’s admitting we’re not perfect – but we’re free and we have what so many don’t. “I don’t believe you can keep America down for long.” Very much deserving of a LOT more play than it’s had.
“One Less Tornado” – this was a song played (along with “Scatter The Ashes”) at an online memorial for Chris after his passing. It tells of a rider being killed by a bull – it’s a tribute to a man held in high esteem and for many that is Chris. Everyone who’d met him knew they were in the company of someone who was real – there was no pretense. He’ll be missed.
Not to miss songs –
Bareback Jack – one of Chris’ most requested songs and one of the oldest written when he was riding broncs. With all the songs he’d done it seemed every show there was someone in the audience yelling “Bareback Jack!!” and if there was a signature song – from a fan standpoint – perhaps this would be it. It endured for – literally – from the 1960s through four decades of a career – being popular in the ’60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and up until his untimely death.
Riding For a Fall – awesome analogy of life and horses. “Cowboy even though you’re riding tall you’re ridin’ for a fall”. Leaving a relationship to maintain freedom and feeling the age creep in is foolhardy and in this song Chris sings of making choices that don’t make sense. “Why don’t you turn back just saddle up and backtrack” and “on a cold lonesome evening what the hell good’s your freedom?”
This Cowboy’s Hat – a hat isn’t just a hat. This song speaks of the differences between people and finding a similarity to build on. Chris once told me “sometimes it takes two extremes to find a middleground”. In this song a bully threatens to take a cowboy’s hat – and a line was drawn. The meaning in little things about the hat is described and the listener can’t help but think of the little things in our own lives that matter.
Chris had his own unique way. He refused to cut the cheatin’ immoral songs. He stayed true to himself and had legions of fans. He’s been credited with inspiring Garth’s stage show. Chris’ shows were a spectacle – he was there to kick it up and ENTERTAIN. He’d have a bucking machine onstage and get on it for a rodeo song…he’d slow it down for a ballad then kick things up again in a “rodeo rock & roll” song like “Little Longhaired Outlaw”. He’s had older songs that resonate like “Ain’t No Place for a Country Boy”, “The Buckskin Lady”, “Jeans And Good Leather” and “Ten Seconds In The Saddle.” He’s done covers of other songs such as the Charlie Daniels written “Billy The Kid”, “God Must Be A Cowboy,” “Old Paint” and a haunting, convincing rendition of the old Jim Reeves song “The Blizzard.”
His steady fan base – there before and after the Nashville high of the ’90s – was the ranching, farming, working people, rodeo folks. The kind of people who could saddle a horse and had sweated under the sun making too little money for too much effort but not willing to change it for a desk job.
Today his long time band, Western Underground, still tours, keeping Chris’ memory and music alive.