The rodeo songs of bronco-riding champion Chris LeDoux may seem like the work of one man, but they offer a window into Country & Western mythologies, old and new.
Those who value, above all else, the authenticity of music have in Chris LeDoux someone who would appear to be the perfect poster child for singing what you know. Here, after all, is a man singing rodeo songs who actually lived the rodeo life: a bare-back bronco-riding champion singing about life as a rodeo cowboy. The title of his first album, self-recorded in 1971 and sold out of his truck after rodeo events, says it all: Songs of Rodeo Life.
The cover of his Life as a Rodeo Man album, released in the same way four years later, makes this even more explicit; it proclaims, "Chris LeDoux sings of his 'Life as a Rodeo Man'." That album has bookend interludes where LeDoux frames the songs in between as exactly that. "I write my songs of life as I know it," he sings, "In my songs I hope you'll understand just a little of what it's like to be a rodeo man." A typical reaction -- the expected reaction -- is exemplified by the first line in All Music Guide's review of LeDoux's 1998 album One Man Road: "While it has been said before, Chris LeDoux is a real singing cowboy." Observe the exclamation point of enthusiasm lying around the word "real."
LeDoux began rodeo riding as a 13-year-old, after moving to Texas, from Mississippi and points in between. In Wyoming he became a state champion; in 1970 he went pro; in 1976 he became World Bareback Riding Champion. And through much of this time, and well after his 1980 retirement from riding, he recorded, performed and wrote rodeo songs. The first four of the 12 LeDoux albums reissued by Capitol Nashville (in six two-disc sets) possess an almost obsessive devotion to rodeo life as the ultimate subject of song. The album titles -- Songs of Rodeo & Country, Life as a Rodeo Man, Songbook of the American West and Sing Me a Song, Mr. Rodeo Man -- suggest as much, and the song titles even more so: "I've Got to Be a Rodeo Man", "Born to Follow Rodeo", "Rodeo, You've Cast a Spell", "All Around Cowboy", etc.
Listening is another experience: complete immersion in the worldview of a rodeo cowboy. On LeDoux's albums -- these four in particular -- the rodeo is everything. It's used literally, symbolically, metaphorically, nostalgically, and fantastically. Rodeo is sung about every which way. Rodeo is a life or death competition, a dream, a love affair with your horse ("of all the girls I've loved / she's the truest one I've found," he sings), a bewitching woman who casts a spell to take hold of a man, absolute freedom, a home-wrecker, inducer of quick-aging ("I feel like I'm 50 / but I'm only 23"), a thrill ride, a deal with the devil, a ticket to celebrity status, pure loneliness, absolute joy, a sure road to death and the only road there is, for a cowboy. The rodeo is in a cowboy's blood. He loves it, he lives for it; it sets him free and holds him back. It's what makes the man and brings him down.
This, of course, is a larger cultural story, not just the story of one man. To take these albums as reality, as some kind of pure distillation of Chris LeDoux's life, is a mistake, and against the very nature of popular music -- no one sings in a vacuum. Ideas flow from singer to singer, listener to listener. Whether singing the songs of classic Country songwriters (as he mostly did) or his own originals (as he sometimes did), he clearly was conjuring up something greater than his own life. He was tapping into, and furthering, a greater stream of ideas, a larger Country & Western mythology.
In his songs, along with the rodeo, and the complicated figure of the rodeo cowboy, are an assortment of Wild West characters, legends, and motifs. There's the reverend/sheriff, carrying a bible and a gun; the cowboys sitting around the campfire eating beans and singing songs; the devil bronco that no one could tame; the waitress in a saloon, waiting for a cowboy to sweep her off her feet. Billy the Kid. Custer's Last Stand. Will Rogers. "Long Black Veil". "Get Along Little Doggies." LeDoux sings of them all, and more.
Musically he turns on and off various Country tropes: from twinkling harmonica to dance-hall tempos. Vocally he accentuates the twang in his voice when he wants an aw-shucks, I'm just a down-home boy quality; he injects his voice with the glow of a late-night campfire when telling a tall tale. The fact that his voice has no odd quirks to it, no truly distinct qualities, makes him resemble a C&W prototype. He's a cipher, through which ideas of the Wild West freely flow. The album cover-images reinforce this: all variations of classic cowboy portraiture. See the cowboy by his horse, see him out on the range, see him drawn in pencil, standing in a classic tough-guy, Marlboro Man pose.
Those first four albums present a vividly defined reality: an American West filled with hard-working, hard-living cowboys striving for success. Along with them for the ride are the women they love but can never stay with, the broncos they respect but will never tame, and the battered old cowboys they look up to, even as they know that one day they'll end up just as heartbroken and body-broken as those old-timers.
The next pair of reissued albums -- 1978's Cowboys Ain't Easy to Love and 1979's Paint Me Back Home in Wyoming -- make the loneliness of the cowboy life an even more central subject. The former album is filled with lonely women and beat-down elders. One lingering image -- from Tony Bessire's "Bars Shouldn't Have Mirrors" and LeDoux's own "The Old Timer" -- is that of an old cowboy sitting in a bar, telling stories of the great old glory days that also end up as stories of regret, of denial, of pain. On Paint Me Back Home... -- which, incidentally, contains one of LeDoux's best-sung cowboy cover tunes, Michael Burton's "Night Rider's Lament" -- the cowboy is, on the whole, haunted by longing for home. On the title track a cowboy in the city longs to return to his country home; by the album's end he's made his way back, welcomed by his mother's arms.
The struggle between freedom and home is another overarching story within LeDoux's music. His return at the end of Paint Me Back Home… signifies larger stories of maturation and domesticity: wild youngsters settling down and starting families, Baby Boomers buying houses in the suburbs. He ends the 1980 album Western Tunesmith by singing, in Tom Kelly's words, "I don't want to be a cowboy anymore". Why? "Cowboys ain't got time to raise a family." Cowboys don't work regular jobs, they don't make a good living. On that album and 1981's He Rides the Wild Horses he starts singing about kids dreaming of being cowboys. His adult cowboys now do more dreaming and remembering than riding. Freedom and domesticity have a back-and-forth dialogue inside his songs. "He rides the wild horses / like the horses he'll never been tamed," he sings. But a handful of songs later he's decided freedom in mentality is more important than in actuality: "Freedom's Just a State of Mind". This is less the story of one cowboy settling down than that of a larger cultural shift. On that same album "Misfortune's Own Son", written by Gary Sefton, links the scarcity of cowboys with that of wild animals, with the changing landscape of the West: "Wild open spaces are fast closing in / misfortune's own sons / you won't see them again." The song is blunt in its declaration that the cowboy's time has gone: "There's no reason to ride now / the old days are gone."
In this post-cowboy climate, LeDoux shifts among acclimation, rejection and dreaming of the past. He Rides the Wild Horses ends with a dream of the rodeo as the great uniter, bringing the whole community together. On the other hand, 1982's Used to Want to Be a Cowboy -- packaged here with 1983's Thirty Dollar Cowboy -- is mostly a work of resignation. The title track views the cowboy life as a dream of children, transferred into family life and full-time work upon adulthood. "Cowboys often end up daddies," he sings. Later he sings of divorce, of Vietnam vets, of living in the suburbs but feeling trapped by it. He sings of "The Last Cowboy in Town". He sings another variation on the old-cowboy-telling-tales song, but this time it's set in a coffee shop instead of a bar, and the cowboy is on the defensive, defending his life as a cowboy (to a biker gang!) instead of basking in it. He ends with "The Red Headed Stranger", and before that, Harlan Howard's "Busted" -- both seem in this context as one last defense of cowboy traditions. But he also sings the Eagles: "Desperado, you better come to your senses."
Along with this changing state of cowboy-dom comes the changing state of country music. Through Ledoux's song choices and his dedication to Western themes, his earliest albums display an outright love for classic country music. Yet as the popular country music of the day changed, and as his own music became more popular, his albums began to convey an inner conflict, or at least inner conversation, about commercial country music. On his early '80s albums LeDoux outright declares that Nashville isn't the place for him. Western Tunesmith's "Country Star" does it playfully: he imagines life as a famous country star, parallels it to life as a rodeo star, and then rejects it, deciding celebrity doesn't have the same in-the-blood pull as rodeoing. But three years later, he'd begin the 1983 album Thirty Dollar Cowboy with a much more cutting, if still gracious, kiss-off to Nashville: "They Couldn't Understand My Cowboy Songs". He sings of going to Nashville and then rejecting it as not the right place for a true cowboy. The same album, though, contains one LeDoux-written song, "Call of the Wild", with rock guitars more in tune with the times than his little old cowboy songs. Other parts of the album veer slightly towards sappy '80s pop balladry, without much of a country backbone.
The lightning bolt lurking behind these steps towards and away from (though still mostly away from) Nashville was country superstar Garth Brooks. His referencing a LeDoux tape in a song, 1989's "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)", cemented the direction LeDoux's music career would take from then on, until his death from cancer complications in 2005. It also began the greater success that LeDoux would reach after he signed to the Capitol Records subsidiary Liberty, even if his name would become inseparable, to many country fans, from Brooks.
LeDoux's biggest hit, his sole #1 country hit, was a duet with Brooks, "Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy". It's from the 1992 album of the same name, which is paired with 1993's Under This Old Hat on the final of the six reissue CDs. It's interesting that the LeDoux-Brooks duet is the most overtly Country & Western song on the album (except perhaps the re-recording of his earlier "The Double Diamond"), the rest trying harder to replicate Brooks' style of country, drawing more from soft-pop and classic rock than classic country (remember the influences Brooks cited most during his heyday: Billy Joel and the Eagles). LeDoux does still sing of staying out on the range, far from Nashville (on "Western Skies"), though the song itself sounds more Bruce Hornsby than country. But he also rocks up his style in a very new-country way.
To replicate the rush of a rodeo ride he chooses pseudo-Bon Jovi guitar riffs ("Hooked on an Eight-Second Ride"); in similar style on another song he tells us that deep down inside his soul lies a rock n' roller. Most interesting -- in light of his discography's trajectory of "progress" versus the Wild West -- is "Cadillac Ranch", another 'rocker', where an unprofitable farm is turned into a dance club. "They're parking cars in the old feed patch," he sings, an interesting contrast to 1975's "I'm Country", where he joked about fending off the city people who wanted to turn "country." "Cadillac Ranch" is the country folk turning city…perhaps at the suburban country line-dance club with the mechanical bull, where Wednesday nights are Ladies' nights.
That's the tradition Under This Old Hat draws from, not just with the "dance club version" of "Cadillac Ranch" or the LeDoux/Charlie Daniels duet about how much cowboys like to "rock and roll", or the song that imitates Foreigner's "Hot Blooded", but also with the vaguely jazzy dance songs "Every Time I Roll the Dice" and "Under This Old Hat". There's also earnest love ballads ("Struggling Years", "Get Back on That Pony") that you can hear fitting right in on '90s country radio, their stories moving listeners to tears as they drive to work or drive their kids to soccer practice. Here when LeDoux sings of the rodeo it's always with a "but" added. I love the rodeo, but last night I fall in love. I love the rodeo, but I'm a rock n' roller, too. I love the rodeo, but life just isn't the same anymore.
By 1993 Chris LeDoux on CD wasn't the same cowboy on the records and cassette of the '70s. Then again, cowboys weren't the same; the West wasn't the same. Ultimately his authenticity as a country star came from his mirror-like qualities: the way his music reflected changing ideas of "country", changing ideas of America.