Biography: Chris LeDoux
A real rodeo cowboy in a musical world saturated with artificial ones, Chris LeDoux has pursued an unusual country music career in at least two respects. Rare indeed are the musicians who have succeeded in carving out profitable careers independent of the star-making machinery centralized in cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville. Scarce, too, are those who were able to keep the ancient American art of the cowboy song alive in the last quarter of the twentieth century. LeDoux laid claim to both of these worthwhile accomplishments.
Identifying rodeo enthusiasts as an underserved musical market played a part in LeDoux's success, as did a noteworthy example of family cooperation and support. But for a long time, his songwriting talents played the most important role. LeDoux is a true musical counterpart to the cowboy poets who sometimes appear at western folk festivals, a chronicler in song of rodeo and range. For many years he sold his musical creations at the same rodeos where he competed. By the early 1990s, however, he had broken through to a national country music audience.
LeDoux lived the rodeo life and sang about it for many years, but he was not born into it. He was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1948, and his father was a pilot in the Air Force. As a child, he lived in many different places with his parents. When Chris was 14 years old, the family moved to Austin, Texas. There his grandfather, who had fought in the United States Cavalry against the Mexican outlaw revolutionary Pancho Villa, introduced him to horseback riding and rodeo competition. A poet at heart, LeDoux also began to work on ideas for cowboy songs while he was still in high school.
Soon LeDoux was proficient enough to compete on the professional rodeo circuit. His talents won him an unusual athletic scholarship—one for rodeo—to Casper College in Wyoming. It was there that he began to try out his music at parties, and soon found himself enthusiastically received by rodeo crowds as well. LeDoux's skills in the rodeo ring grew, and in 1976 he was named world champion in bareback riding by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Bouncing back from a string of injuries, he trained nonstop for months at a ranch he bought in Wyoming. He lived there with his wife, Peggy, and their five children, in a house he built out of logs and stone.
In the early 1970s LeDoux's parents moved to Nashville. They learned the inner workings of the music business there, and in so doing put in place the real cornerstone of LeDoux's musical career. They realized his exposure could be maximized through a well-planned series of recordings. So the family formed an independent record label, American Cowboy Songs, and LeDoux's first album was released in 1972. He had just married, and was grateful for the extra income: "I didn't mind starvin', but I didn't want my wife to starve with me," LeDoux told Pollstar.
American Cowboy Songs was a true family affair, with LeDoux's brother Mike doing the marketing and promotion for the label, his mother Bonnie handling orders, and father Al producing the recordings that LeDoux made during his yearly visits to Nashville. LeDoux sold his records and tapes at rodeo events out of a booth or out of his gear bag. They were also distributed through western wear outlets and, remarkably for a small independent enterprise, at several large retail music chains based in the western United States.
The dimensions of LeDoux's success within his specialized market were nothing less than staggering. Sales for the company's first year in business totaled only $6,000, but they grew steadily. By the end of the 1980s the catalog of LeDoux's LP recordings had grown to 22 items. In a 1991 interview with Billboard, Al LeDoux estimated their total sales at over $4,000,000.
LeDoux wrote much of the music on his 22 albums, and the consistent freshness of his songwriting went a long way toward insuring his success. His style was simple, even naive, but his descriptions of the rodeo could be startlingly vivid ("With his feet on my belly, standing in place/That dirty old bull blew snot in my face," he intoned grimly on 1977's "Bull Rider"). Al LeDoux contributed production values that were in no way amateurish. LeDoux's recordings stood up well when compared to mainstream Nashville productions of their time.
LeDoux's sales totals were not going unnoticed in Nashville. In the fall of 1990, Capitol Records' Nashville vice president Joe Mansfield was alerted by western retailers to LeDoux's sales potential. Country megastar-to-be Garth Brooks, a fan of LeDoux's music since his own youth in rural Oklahoma, also helped generate interest in the singer by including a reference to "a worn-out tape of Chris LeDoux" in his 1989 hit "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)." In early 1991 LeDoux signed a contract with Capitol Records; his recordings appeared under the company's Liberty label.
LeDoux's Liberty recordings, most of them supervised by Capitol president and veteran Nashville producer Jimmy Bowen, for the most part tried to play to the singer's strengths. He generally stuck to cowboy themes and continued his contributions as a songwriter. "Workin' Man's Dollar," from the first Capitol LP, Western Underground, was a LeDoux-penned personification of that always-scarce piece of currency, and the song brought LeDoux some radio airplay. But the second major-label album, 1992's Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy, featured some new directions and became LeDoux's commercial breakthrough.
On the album's title track LeDoux paired up with his admirer Garth Brooks in a good-natured, western-swing tune with the theme of an upper-class woman's attraction to a cowboy. Brooks' presence propelled the album to a strong start; it debuted at number 13 on Billboard's country albums chart and eventually climbed into the top ten.
The album's second single, "Cadillac Ranch," became LeDoux's most successful single release. It borrowed from Brooks in a different way: to LeDoux's plain, untrained vocals was added a backdrop of heavy rock guitar. The song's lyrics cleverly inverted the cowboy theme, describing the transformation of the barn of a bankrupt ranch into a successful country nightclub. Several other selections on the album emulated Brooks's appropriation of 1970s rock styles, with "Hooked on an Eight Second Ride" approaching an arena-rock anthem in its intensity. But, as the song's title indicates, LeDoux's cowboy identity was never submerged. After all, as LeDoux pointed out in a Pollstar interview, "Ridin' bulls is rock 'n' roll."
Whatcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy was certified gold (for sales of 500,000 copies) in February of 1993. LeDoux's third album for Liberty, 1993's Under This Old Hat, followed the pattern set by its predecessor, combining cowboy themes with Texas swing and rock influences. It included a dance remix of "Cadillac Ranch," strewn with tape loops, that probably represented LeDoux's point of farthest departure from the simple western styles of his early career, but that brought him new fans from the world of so-called "young country."
A greatest-hits package was released in the spring of 1994, and in the summer of that year LeDoux went to work on his 27th album, an impressive record of accomplishment for a man who, when he first got married, is said to have listed his assets as "a hundred and fifteen dollars and a good horse in Amarillo."
In the mid-1990s LeDoux received critical acclaim for his albums Haywire and Stampede. Part of his success was due to his reaching out beyond the country genre for new material, such as a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Tougher Than the Rest" and a duet with rocker Jon Bon Jovi on the 1999 album One Road Man.
In 2000 LeDoux was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer and underwent a liver transplant. He returned to touring within six months, and in 2002 his album Under the Storm received widespread critical acclaim. In 2004 he released another album, Horsepower.
LeDoux died in Casper, Wyoming, on March 9, 2005, as a result of his liver disease. He is survived by his wife, Peggy, and their five children. In the Arizona Daily Star, Cathalena E. Burch wrote, "He will be remembered for his energy, his passion and his amazing capacity for being a nice guy in an industry that often takes the gentle out of a man." According to Ed Will in the Denver Post, Kathy Repola, co-owner of the Denver club Grizzly Rose, said about him, "The only way I can describe him is he was genuine. He was a salt-of-the-earth type of guy. A wonderful man."
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