By the time Garth Brooks name-checked Chris LeDoux in his debut single, 1989’s “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” the real-life rodeo champ and balladeer was already a cult star. LeDoux wrote and sang detail-rich songs about the grueling rodeo circuit with a restless spirit and his own hard-won experience. His bronc-riding peers ate it up, buying LeDoux’s homemade tapes from the back of the singer’s truck.
But they also bootlegged their own copies of albums like 1971’s Songs of Rodeo Life and passed them around, as Brooks called out in “Much Too Young” when he sang about “a worn-out tape of Chris LeDoux.”
“I found that to be very, very true,” says Mark Sissel, the longtime guitar player in LeDoux’s backing band Western Underground. “When I met those rodeo cowboys they’d say, ‘I have a cassette tape that’s the fifth generation from another cassette tape.’ They’d just wear them out and then have to try to find another in a feed store or somewhere.”
LeDoux died in 2005 at age 56 after a battle with cancer, leaving behind a legacy that continues to cast a shadow in country music. Traces of the rodeo imagery that LeDoux helped popularize can still be heard in the songs of stars like Brooks, who paid tribute to his friend with “Good Ride Cowboy,” Aaron Watson, and Randy Houser, along with newcomers like Kylie Frey.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Songs of Rodeo Life, LeDoux’s first of 22 independently recorded and released albums, Capitol Nashville/UMe released the LeDoux retrospective Wyoming Cowboy – A Collection in July. Assembled by Sissel and available digitally and on vinyl, the compilation includes LeDoux classics like “Hooked on an 8 Second Ride,” “Cadillac Cowboy,” and “This Cowboy’s Hat,” along with LeDoux’s 1992 collaboration with Brooks, “Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy.” There are also two deep cuts, 1978’s U.K. release “Oklahoma Hospitality” and a brief vocal-and-guitar ballad from 1975 simply titled “Album Introduction.”
Ned LeDoux, LeDoux’s son who performs rodeo songs in his own band, with Sissel on guitar, says his father’s unvarnished, plain-spoken lyrics about topics like dirty motels (“Ain’t No Place for a Country Boy”) and chewing tobacco (“Copenhagen”) resonated with cowboys because of their gritty realness. In the song “The Rodeo Life,” Chris succinctly described his days and nights in a spoken interlude: “I’m a cowboy on the rodeo circuit, and when it’s time to ride, I bear down and try/but when I play, I go to some old crowded barroom/and get drunk and wild along with the other guys.”
“Who better to write those songs than somebody who’s living that life?” the 43-year-old Ned LeDoux says. “I remember an interview from a four-time world champion bareback rider, Marvin Garrett, who said, ‘Growing up listening to those songs, it was almost like a warning. It’s not a matter of if you’re going to get busted up, it’s a matter of when.’”
The elder LeDoux’s approach to songwriting was often unconventional. A self-taught musician and writer, he’d ask his band members to come up with music for his lyrics by describing nature or the weather. Sissel recalls one colorful writing session in particular.
“He said, ‘You know when the skies are all kind of purply at sunset and the sand’s blowin’ through the windmill and the flies buzzin’ around and lands on your lip? You know what that sounds like?’” Sissel says. “That’s how he explained his songs to us. And I loved it. I wanted to be a part of that. He wasn’t concerned about technicalities, he just wanted to get the picture across to people.”
LeDoux will return to one of his father’s old haunts on Friday when he opens Garth Brooks’ sold-out show at the 125th Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo in Wyoming. They’ll also gather on the rodeo grounds to dedicate a new bronze statue of LeDoux, by sculptor D. Michael Thomas.
“Cheyenne to me is like the Grand Ole Opry of the West. It’s the biggest thing we have in Wyoming,” LeDoux says. “I’m having Garth help out and the whole family will be here. I’m sure that my dad will be looking down with a big old grin on his face.”
Chris LeDoux, who eventually signed a major label deal with Liberty Records/Capitol Nashville in 1991, not only competed at Cheyenne but performed there with Western Underground. “It was all about fun for Chris and doing those shows,” Sissel says. He recalls the loud and raucous — but deliberately respectful and family-friendly — concerts that LeDoux put on. While some of his early independent albums were stripped-down, his rock-leaning live performances were not. Says Sissel: “He was like the Bon Jovi of the cowboys.”
In fact, LeDoux teamed up with Jon Bon Jovi for a duet on his 1998 album One Man Road, a cover of Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory solo track “Bang a Drum.” They also appeared side by side in the music video.
“We were pleased that he did it,” Jon Bon Jovi told Rolling Stone last year of LeDoux’s cover. “He didn’t have a lot of commercial success, but he was one of the cool cats, which, you know, as a writer, that’s probably the best feeling you get … a voice that people really love digging what you’re doing.”
Sixteen years since Chris’s death, Ned LeDoux credits his father’s ongoing appeal to that cool quality — but a coolness mixed with realism and self-reflection.
“He was the real deal,” he says. “I remember Mark saying one time how they were hanging out on the bus and Dad said, ‘Why do you think these people keep showing up to watch this old cowboy sing?’ And Mark said, ‘Because they believe you.’”