In 1971, Chris LeDoux was well known on the rodeo circuit as an up-and-coming rodeo cowboy as well as a singer/songwriter of rodeo life. That year, Chris started his own label, American Cowboy Songs, and released his first album, Songs of Rodeo Life. Likely as not, Chris sold that first album at Cheyenne Frontier Days out of his rigging bag or the back of his truck that year while competing at the rodeo.
Five years later, Chris took home the Gold Buckle for the World Bareback Riding title at the 1976 National Finals Rodeo. His rodeo career was at its height and his music career was well on its way.
This year Chris is being honored with a 50th anniversary album, Wyoming Cowboy – A Collection, by Capitol Nashville/UMe and the Chris LeDoux Estate. Released on July 2, the compilation includes some of his best-loved songs as well as a couple songs not so well known even among his fans. “Oklahoma Hospitality,” released in 1978 on a UK-only album, and one simply titled “Album Intro,” from an out-of-print 1975 release, will have their first release on the digital platform.
Additionally, the 125th Cheyenne Frontier Days, where Chris rode as a rodeo cowboy and performed as one of the favorites at the huge celebration of everything cowboy, is honoring him with the unveiling of a bronze statue that will be added to the sculpture collection in Frontier Park. The sculpture is by D. Michael Thomas from Buffalo, Wyoming and memorializes the tie of Chris LeDoux to the rodeo and music worlds and his place in CFD history. The life and a half size bronze depicts Chris riding the horse Stormy Weather to the 1976 World Bareback Riding Championship, along with a guitar that sits atop an arrow shaped base representing Cheyenne Frontier Day’s logo.
Chris’ son, Ned, who follows in his father’s steps as a singer/songwriter, and Garth Brooks will open the music series at Cheyenne Frontier Days on July 23 for a sold-out event. In a video to help promote Cheyenne Frontier Days 125 years, Brooks says, “One of my favorite memories at Cheyenne Frontier Days is that I got to play with Chris LeDoux – the man! I’m looking forward to the 125th year and the fact that it’s dedicated to Chris. Thanks for remembering me and for giving me some of the greatest moments of my life.”
Representatives from Cheyenne Frontier Days say they “are proud to dedicate the 125th Cheyenne Frontier Days celebration to the legendary Chris LeDoux. We are proud to honor Chris LeDoux and his ties to the rodeo and music worlds and his place in Cheyenne Frontier Days history, where he rode bucking horses and graced the stage with his band, Western Underground.”
Ned says it is an honor to have the sculpture dedicated to his dad during Cheyenne Frontier Days. “Quite a few years ago now we had the same sculpture presented in Kaycee, Wyoming (where Chris and his family lived) and we had big unveiling party and had Chris LeDoux days. Mike Thomas, the man who built it, is like the Charlie Russel of our era.
“Cheyenne was always a big deal with my dad, he rode bareback horses there, then headlining on the big stage there was a dream came true. He was a legend in Cheyenne.”
Chris’ rise as a singer and entertainer was as legendary as his leap from the up-and-coming cowboy to take home the World Bareback Title at the 1976 National Finals Rodeo. He released 22 albums on his label, turning down numerous offers from major record labels to join their roster. Early in his career, Chris’ mom and dad, who lived in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, would make each cassette tape by hand, then mail them to the fans who were ordering them at a rapid pace. Their peak production was 16 eight tracks a day.
Later, after Garth Brooks sang about Chris in his first single, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” he did sign with Capitol Records and released another 18 albums through them.
Ned remembers the day his dad heard the song on the radio. “We were coming back from town and my dad never listened to the radio but he would keep it on. We were all kind of talking and had the radio on a country station, and it was turned up where you could just hear it. When the song mentioned rodeo and traveling, dad bumped the volume a little bit, and then the line about the worn out tape of Chris LeDoux came on, and dad was like ‘who is this?’ He had no idea who it was. The rest is history — Garth and him got to be real friends, did the duet, were nominated for a Grammy … all the stuff they got to do after the song that mentioned my dad.”
The 50-year anniversary CD chronicles Chris career in music, including songs from the beginning of his career until he died from a rare cancer in 2005 at 56. From his popular “Western Skies” through “Look At Your Girl” and “Hooked On An 8 Second Ride,” fans can relive Chris’ music that perhaps was a soundtrack to their life. Also included are “Watcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy” with Garth Brooks and “Even Cowboys Like A Little Rock and Roll” with Charlie Daniels. The poignant “This Cowboy’s Hat” is there, as is “Cadillac Cowboy” and “Seventeen.”
The song Ned and Mac McAnally wrote after Ned’s mother found some of his father’s unfinished lyrics, “We Ain’t Got It All,” is also included. “I’m thrilled to have that song on their,” Ned says. “Mac and I wrote the song like dad but in a different way. It was the first song I ever wrote and I had a lot of help from Mac.
“My mom came across these unfinished lyrics a while after dad passed. She came across some song ideas, notes here and there, and gave them to me and thought I could find something to do with them. The thing with Mac, he wrote on the last three albums of dad’s, so he invited me to his place and we wrote that song.”
The album ends with a live version of “Little Long Haired Outlaw.” Altogether, the songs showcase very well Chris’ description of his music, “western soul, sagebrush blues, cowboy folk and rodeo rock ‘n’ roll.”
Mark Sissel, who was Chris’ friend and guitar player, says he started taking to Universal about doing an album for the 50th anniversary, and in the conversation, it came out that it would be a great thing to do a vinyl one.
“Chris has tons of compilations, so we wish we had more new songs. I figured out there were a couple rare songs not re-released by Capitol, and we put one of Ned’s songs on there, which started out his career. I didn’t have a specific game plan when we put together the songs. There is the Charlie Daniels song and Garth Brooks song, and then ‘Western Skies,’ which Ned says is a signature song of his dads.
“The other side feels to me like it’s giving people a little insight into rodeo life. The “Album Intro,’ I just read the lyrics on his discography, and I thought it was a smokin’ intro from 1975, and then Peggy found it on an old vinyl she had of his and she recorded it on her phone and sent it to me. I was like, ‘holy cow, it’s just him and a guitar.’ It’s true Chris LeDoux. The live version of ‘Long Haired Outlaw’ feels like his shows felt to me. So I guess the B feels to me like his show and the A side has the iconic songs that are more recent.”
“It’s a small part of my dad’s music,” Ned says. “His catalog is big, it was really hard, because there are so many songs that could have been on here. Just because a song didn’t get on doesn’t mean it was not worthy. The cool thing is that it is on vinyl, so it’s cool to have a product of dad’s being released on vinyl. That’s a pretty cool thing these days.”
Sissel says he thinks the reason that Chris’ music remains popular is, “He was just honest, he sang about the life he led, and people connected to it. There were no cheating or drinking songs, just real life as he knew it.”
Sissel remembers the first show he did with Chris and the Western Underground in Salt Lake City. “We did the ‘Powder River’ record. We recorded together but we hadn’t done a show with him. So we did that record, and it was 2500 capacity in the club and there were way more people that should have been in there. The stage was set back in the wall, and my ears were shutting down with people screaming so loud. I didn’t know enough about him and I was asking, ‘Who is this guy and where did all these people come from’?”
That was the start of Sissel’s work for Chris as his road manager. “I heard everybody’s story for 16 years. The people talked about how he truly changed their lives through his music and had turned them to the positive. They said he helped them get out of these bad places; people even said he helped them so much in their life and yet they had never met him.
“Everyone respected him for what he did and how he did it. Even Wade Jessen (at Billboard Magazine) said Chris and his folks had one of the early boutique record labels.”
Sissel said Chris had a unique way of relaying his music to the musicians who were in the studio with him. “He sent me tapes of songs he had been writing for eight to ten months. When we got in the studio, he started taking about the songs and he would say, ‘On this one fellas, you know when the sky is purple and pink and orange and the wind is blowing the sand and the windmill and there is sand on your lip — you know what that sounds like.’ He was the first person to relate his music in images. I found it fascinating, very unique and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Sissel can even go back to the first show where Chris saw a headset and realized how much more he could do in his shows if he had one. “At first he didn’t think he wanted to get one, finally on a soundcheck we got him to put it on and try it and he figured out he could go anywhere he wanted. As soon as he found the freedom with the headset that really changed his show. We’d lose him, he would be up on a truss. One day at a big fair we finally spotted him on top of a semi; he jumped off the truck to the stage. Another time people were so proud of the stage and Chris jumped over the drum riser and put his foot right through that stage.”
Sissel remembers that Garth says he stole everything from Chris about his show, and ‘he didn’t charge me a nickel.’ “Chris felt more like it was just two guys coming up, and they had the same kind of excitement about how they like to do shows. He never would accept that credit of course he was thankful for him saying it.”
Sissel said the first show Garth and Chris played together, Garth insisted that he open for Chris. “It was the Cocky Bull, a 350-seater in Victorville, California. Garth stood at the side of the stage, in the doorway, for Chris’ entire show. We were blowing pyro at this show, he watched that whole show and I guess that’s how he started picking up some things with Chris. I heard he talked to his band and said, ‘We want to do that kind of thing.’ We did two shows that night, and that’s where it started and they got to know each other over the years and it grew from there.”
As Ned listens to Wyoming Cowboy – A Collection, he says it reinforces how much of an influence Chris was on him. “Really the main reason I got into music was my dad. When I was just a little kid playing with him in a barn behind the high school, before the success came, the thing that really got me was the drums,” Ned says. “I got the first kit when I was six or seven. All of it was thanks to the influence my dad had on me. I saw him doing it and it looked like fun so I thought I’d give it a try.”
Ned played on the road with his dad for seven years. “It was a thrill to be his drummer. How I got into the band was dad’s drummer got in a car wreck and was laid up, and dad asked me to come out to play drums for him. I immediately said yes, when do we leave. So I knew it was cool he asked his own son, he took a chance on me. I was thankful that I could step up and perform and do a good job.
“I think the fun thing about this album is that it will be on vinyl,” Ned says. “There are a lot of people out there who collect vinyl and maybe they didn’t have the chance to get their hands on one of dad’s old original, great collection of songs on vinyl. There are a couple tracks on this that were never released or released once and got lost in the back room, so I think it will be really cool.”