Friday, July 10, 2009

Early Chris LeDoux

by Jean Henry-Mead

Long before a Garth Brook’s song elevated Chris LeDoux to the ranks of country stardom, the young bronc rider was busy raising kids, horses, Columbia sheep and hay on his 500-acre ranch near Kaycee, Wyoming. He was then best known for his 1976 world championship rodeo title and his songs about rodeo life.

The easy-smiling, laid-back cowboy did things his own way because, next to his family, freedom was his most valued asset. It was also the reason he left rodeo in 1980 to concentrate on his own record label, instead of being "owned by a big company."

At the time he said, "I don’t know what makes a guy want to write songs and sing, but if you’ve got a message, you want to get it across. When I come up with an idea about the way I feel, I can really state it strongly in a song."

The shy guitar picker felt strongly about "family freedom and the West" as well as "cowboy ways." He was just as adamant about his dislike of farm machinery and refused to be photographed on his own tractor. By 1981, his feelings had been transformed into more than fifty songs, which he wrote, recorded, and sold — more than 250,000 albums and tapes — from the back of his pickup truck while performing as a bareback rider. LeDoux and his father Al, a retired air force major, had formed their own recording company, American Cowboy Songs, in 1972, and recorded periodically in Nashville on a boot lace budget.

Chris began riding in junior rodeos while thirteen and living in Denison, Texas. The air force brat, eldest of three children, had previously lived in France, Mississippi, New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania, before moving to Cheyenne, Wyoming, while a high school sophomore. During the time he lived in the southern states, he acquired an accent and love of rodeo, which led him to quit college to take on the circuit full-time.

Majoring in art, physical education and rodeo at Casper and Sheridan community colleges, he received a scholarship to Eastern New Mexico University at Portales in 1969. After one semester, he performed in a rodeo at the Denver Stock Show. He didn’t win any money, but he went on to Fort Worth where he won $400 as a bareback rider. The win changed the course of his life. He decided to quit college in his third year and ride the circuit full-time.

While performing in high school and college rodeo, he rode bulls and saddle broncs as well as roping calves, but he was best on bareback broncs. "I had to give everything I had to one event if I wanted to excel," he said. And excel he did. He won the world championship bareback title in December 1976 at the National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City, the sport’s "super bowl." The win, he said, made up for all the injuries and lean days on the road.

"I can remember sittin’ in a café when I first started in rodeo, and waitin’ until somebody got done so I could finish what they left," he said, laughing. "You get to where you kind of like it, and it’s a habit that’s hard to break. I still find myself sittin’ in a café, like a pizza parlor, and thinkin’ ‘Doggone, they sure left a lot of food.’"

When the prize money ran out, he was forced — like other cowboys on the circuit — to "rough it" between rodeos. "Sleepin’ in the truck wasn’t so bad. Shoot, I kind of liked that, myself. And takin’ a bath in the creek. That’s the stuff that really made it worthwhile. Anybody can stay in a motel."

The expenses were the worst part. "I remember when I first started. I thought, ‘Boy, if I just had enough to pay my entry fees and buy a hamburger once in a while, I don’t care whether I win any money. I just wanted to get on them buckin’ horses and go.’ But when you get a little older, you think, ‘I’d like to make a little money and stick it away or buy a place — or win the world championship.’"

Entry fees were $150-$200 per event in those days and cowboys looked forward to sharing in the prize money, which averaged between $2,500 and $4,000. But the odds of winning are high. "In my event, at a rodeo like Houston, there might be ninety bareback riders that you’re competin’ with. You’ll probably get three horses and you have to draw a good buckin’ horse. That’s mighty tough. The odds of drawing a good one is probably eighty percent against you. If you’re lucky enough to draw a good horse, you still have to ride him, then the next ones. So it’s probably eighty percent luck and twenty percent skill."

The young, six-foot, 170-pound cowboy averaged 80 rodeos a year. "I really didn’t go that hard," he said, "although a couple of years I did. Some guys work 125 to 130 rodeos a year. They’re just goin’ all the time. Rodeo cowboys usually keep goin’ until they’re crippled — injured by animals — run out of money for entry fees and traveling expenses, quit or get killed in the arena. The camaraderie among them is unlike any other sport."

"We loaned each other money to keep goin’ and we yelled for each other in the arena. It’s not like football or basketball where the guys are competin’ against each other. You’re competin’ against the animals and the elements. And you hope your buddies will win so you don’t have to loan them any money."

LeDoux had second thoughts about his rodeo career during his second season. "I thought it was the worst mistake I ever made ‘cause I only won $250 all summer. And then I got crippled. I had a horse step on me while performing and [my foot] was messed up for a while."

The handsome bronc rider was fortunate not to have sustained any broken bones. His injuries were confined to separated joints: knees, collarbone and an elbow. His longest period of recuperation was from February until June of 1975, when he injured his knee. "It was a terrible injury," he said, and years later, it still "wasn’t right." I had to finally figure out a way to tape it so that it held together."

Before his world championship ride, he and his wife rigged a harness to hold his collarbone in place. Shrugging, he said, "Shoot, every time you get on an animal, you take your life in your hands."

Some of LeDoux’s predicaments were far more humorous than life threatening. He recalls a horse that "mashed" his new Western hat in the arena, and the time he performed a race where he sat in a "scoop shovel" pulled by a rope that was dallied to the saddle horn of a horse running a timed race around some barrels. "My partner and I won the race, and I threw my hat into the air and bent to pick it up. Everyone started laughin’ because I had split the back end of my pants out, and I wasn’t wearing shorts."

The cowboy married a girl in 1972 in the minuscule town of Kaycee in east-central Wyoming. Peggy Rhoads had never been out of the state when she became Mrs.Christopher LeDoux, but she found herself on the rodeo circuit, living like a gypsy. Her husband intended to leave her home that winter and return whenever he could, but Peggy attended a Denver rodeo, and left to travel with him. He had $15 in his jeans when they left Denver for Amarillo, where he had won $800, which got them as far as Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. There he won a little more. When his bank roll ran out, he borrowed enough to get them to San Diego.

"Tires were so bald on the truck that the air was showin’ through, and I had to drive fifty miles an hour all the way out there because the vibration was so bad."

Fortunately, he won the bareback competition and they moved on to Phoenix, where they bought new tires, paid his entry fees, and stayed in a motel. Then they were broke.

Peggy left the circuit to give birth separately to a daughter and three sons. Her husband went home during his off-time, whether from injury or fatigue. While he was home, LeDoux built a log house in "downtown" Kaycee, completed in five years. He also considered his chances of becoming a recording artist in his spare time. He had been composing songs with guitar since high school as well as dabbling in art. In 1972, he and two friends recorded some of his songs on a four-track tape recorder in a friend’s basement in Sheridan, Wyoming. LeDoux then sent the reel-to-reel tape to his father Al, who had retired from the military, and was living in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, near Nashville.

"There was a lack of rodeo songs," he said. "There were songs about truck drivers, love, barrooms and every other doggone thing, so I figured that with all the rodeo fans and cowboys out there, I’d give them some rodeo songs. And it worked."

LeDoux’s father at first recorded the tapes, one at a time, on a small device in his home. They were distributed at rodeos by his son from the back of his pickup truck. Later, they rented a recording studio in Nashville and hired musicians to play backup. "They were so good that you just had to sing the song to them once and they got it," he said smiling. "It’s amazing. Sometimes it didn’t come out the way you wanted, but it was good." His albums took three or four sessions of three hours each to record without rehearsal time — to save money.

By 1982, country music fans had purchased over a quarter million copies of his self-published recordings. His renditions of songs such as: "A Cowboy Like Me," "Too Tough to Die," and "What More Could a Cowboy Need" sold surprisingly well in stores and music outlets, and were broadcast on country music stations across the country. Radio station KSOP in Salt Lake City promoted the young "Roy Rogers" since his early recording days, and he staged concerts in the area on a regular basis. He also appeared twice on German TV in Munich, and earned himself a fan club in Iowa.

His father, serving as his business manager, negotiated with several large recording companies and found that his son’s valued freedom would be severely impaired if he signed with any of them. "Shoot," the cowboy said, "they would own me. They’d tell me which songs to sing and where to appear. That would be terrible."

Although he continued to write songs about his rodeo days, LeDoux said during his early thirties, "I hope I’ve got enough sense to never go back to it. I might consider it if rodeoing started paying anywhere near as much as other sports." He decided to give it up in 1980, while he was "down behind the chutes with this big snatchin’ horse — that’s one that really jerks on you like a hobo grabs a freight train as it goes by. I was sittin’ there with both knees taped and my elbow and collarbone. And I thought, ‘Doggone, what am I doin’ here?’ I just wanted to get in the truck and go home . . . When I finally got there, I threw my glove away and tossed my riggin’ bag in the cellar. I haven’t been back since."

Still struggling to make it into the ranks of well-known country music stars, LeDoux went on tour with Garth Brooks, and Brooks wrote, "I’m Too Young to Feel so Damn Old," which mentions, "listenin’ to an old Chris LeDoux tape. . ." The rest, as they say, is country music history.

(Excerpted from my book, Westerners.)


Bill Kirton said...

Wow, fascinating. Another world entirely. I love the idea of tires being so bald you can see the air. I was going to link to a spoof cowboy song I wrote and sang but I don't think it would be appropriate. Chris is the real article.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Bill. I enjoyed interviewing Chris at his ranch, which is about 70 miles north of where I live. I first met him in Sheridan in the basement of a friend, where he and several others were practicing his songs long before he performed professionally. It's sad that he died so young.

Helen Ginger said...

What a wonderful story. I'd say they don't come like him anymore, but there are cowboys out there who are just as tough. Loved reading about him, Jean.

Straight From Hel

Jean Henry Mead said...

You're right, Helen. Chris was one in a million, but there are many "tough" cowboys in this area with a sense of humor and more than a little talent. Real cowboys who "punch" cattle every day.

Mark W. Danielson said...

The only singing cowboy who comes close to Chris is George Straight -- a true rodeo roper. But Chris had his own unique style, which is why he inspired such greats as Garth Brooks. No doubt his legend will live on.