The Cowboy in Country Music: Chris LeDoux

Chris LeDoux
Chris LeDoux

Chris LeDoux and his wife, Peg, were driving south from their ranch in Kaycee,Wyoming, to Casper when he heard his name sung on the radio. It was an unknown singerout of Nashville named Garth Brooks and the song was Garth’s first hit, “Much Too Young(To Feel This Damn Old).” Chris had never heard of Garth Brooks and never even knew asong with his name in it existed until it came on the radio. “Hard to stay on the road,” saidChris, who admitted it was “a shock” and an “oh wow” moment in his life. That song wasthe biggest break Chris LeDoux ever got in the music business, and it launched his careerfrom being an artist on an independent label, trying to sell a few CDs, to a multimillion-selling artist.Chris LeDoux grew up “all over” because his father was in the air force, and the familymoved a lot—Long Island, Mississippi, France, Philadelphia, Texas and Wyoming.

Chrisgot on his first bucking horse in Cartright, Oklahoma, when he was around 13 at a smallcommunity rodeo. “My father talked to the guy in charge,” said Chris. “It was too late toenter but he said I could ride an ‘exhibition.’ I didn’t know what ‘exhibition’ was.”Chris loved the experience and went on to ride in a number of rodeos, winning theLittle Britches Rodeo Bareback World Championship in 1964, the Wyoming State HighSchool Bareback Bronc Championship in 1967, the National Intercollegiate Bareback RidingChampionship in 1969 and the Bareback Bronc Championship trophy in 1976.

The first record Chris ever bought was a 45 of “Big Iron” by Marty Robbins. “We wentdown to the store and asked the guy what was something good and he said, ‘This is new.’ Ithink he even played it for us,” said Chris. His first guitar came when his mother boughthim a Harmony instrument. She also bought a chord book for him and he sat down andlearned to play.That guitar is still with him, but it’s hanging on a wall now, all in pieces. “Itgot smashed while I was in college,” he said.

The first songs he played were country—”Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams andsome Buck Owens numbers. Then he started writing songs; his first composition was “Par-ticipally Phrase” because he was having trouble in High School English learning about par-ticiples.

Of his days with the rodeo, Chris said, “I was just into riding.” But he’d recorded foursongs in Nashville before he got married, then recorded some others in Wyoming after he’dgotten married and that was his first album. He “always had a few in the trunk” when hewent to rodeos, but didn’t spend much time trying to perform or sell them.

“Then my parents got involved,” said Chris. His father, who had been a bomber pilotduring World War II, retired and settled in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville, and organized a record label, publishing and the basics of a career in the music industry.Chris LeDoux’s albums soon became a cult favorite among rodeo cowboys and other loversof western music; but as far as the rest of the recording industry, the albums really weren’ta blip on the radar screen.

During his rodeo days, Chris performed only once at a rodeo. Then, in the late seventiesand early eighties, he got a little more serious about performing. “We’d mail letters to achamber of commerce or anybody we could when there was a rodeo or fair to see if we couldget some bookings,” remembers Chris. “Sometimes a letter would get answered and we’dplay. And every now and then a phone call would come out of the blue.”

The reason Chris got more serious about his music career was because he was in dangerof losing his ranch. “We got into ranching after I was married and thought we knew whatwe were doing and that we could make it. Then in 1978 the interest rate shot up to twenty-two percent—we had one of those variable rates—and the bottom fell out of the value ofland. It looked like we were going down a blind, dark alley.”

The ranch in Kaycee stayed afloat because Chris’s father- in- law put in some money andbecause Chris began earning a little bit of money performing. Then that song came on theradio. Eight months later, he and Garth were both booked into the same club in California,which is where they first met.

“It was a magical evening,” said Chris. “We got to visit and talk a lot. It was a smallstage and just to see his magic, hear his songs and see how he connected with people—it wasincredible.” Because of Garth, Chris was signed to Capitol Records—Garth’s label—andbegan to sell in big numbers. The crowds at his shows increased and he began playing “anice mix” of concert halls, fairs and rodeos. He still had a working ranch in Wyoming,running Angus cattle with some red bulls, but he was playing on the road more.

That situation lasted for a number of years until a few years ago when he started feelingbad—”little bouts of the flu and it got worse”—and went to a doctor. Chris was handed someheavy news: he needed a liver transplant if he was going to survive. As soon as Garth Brooksheard about that, he called Chris and told him, “I’m donating part of my liver to you.” Chriswas overwhelmed, “speechless,” but it wasn’t a match. However, a donor was found and theoperation was a success.

“My health is up and down,” said Chris. “It probably always will be, but I’m prettymuch O.K. and can do most of the things I used to do.” The lessons that he learned wasthat “you never know,” he said. “I’d gotten to the point in life where I felt like I could coast,and then that hit me. Thanks to a good doctor and a donor and the man upstairs, I’m healed.”

Was there any great revelation that came out of all this? “No, but I still do a lot ofasking,” said Chris. “I don’t know why this all happened to me but I feel now I should sortabe a positive influence with my life and music now. But I’m not going to beat the drum oversome cause. I really don’t know what life is all about—life is a strange thing—but I do knowhow lucky most of us are, while some are really suffering.”

Chris LeDoux died on March 9, 2005.

SOURCE: LeDoux, Chris. Phone interview with the author, May 14, 2003.