Wherever the average day takes me, chances are I’ll go there with musical accompaniment. I listen to music at home, music in the car, music at work, music everywhere I go. And, if I can catch a time when no one is around (or sometimes even if they are), I’ll sing along. It drives the kids and the dog crazy.
My musical tastes are as diversified as anyone’s can be. I can set my iPhone’s music app to random and jump from Eric Church to AC-DC to The Cathedrals to Alison Krauss to Eminem to DMX to Dolly Parton to Black Eyed Peas. And, most days, that’s how I play my music — because anything other than random is, well, boring.
But sometimes I dial up a certain artist, depending on what I’m doing, and spend hours listening to his (or her) music. This time of year, when the days are getting warmer and my mind begins to wander to a summer night on the Big South Fork river bank, that artist is usually Chris Ledoux.
Has there ever been a better writer and singer of campfire songs than Ledoux? It has been written that Ledoux championed rodeo music; that he wrote he sang the anthems of the cowboy life. It has been said that Ledoux put the “western” in country-and-western music. And all of that is hard to argue with. But, more than that, Ledoux championed the music of those of us who love to live our lives in wide open spaces.
Ledoux was a rodeo champion before he was a singer. A two-time state champ bareback rider in high school, and a national champ bareback rider in college, Ledoux didn’t become a singer until he became a pro on the national rodeo circuit in the early 1970s.
The rodeo lifestyle was not one that provided a luxurious way of life, and Ledoux helped cover his expenses by composing songs about the rodeo life. Once he had enough to record an album, he established his own recording company and began selling albums out of the back of his truck at rodeo events.
It wasn’t until Ledoux retired from the rodeo circuit in the early 1980s that he began touring and playing concerts.
It seems unbelievable now, considering some of the great songs he wrote and recorded in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, but Ledoux was not well-known until Garth Brooks released his big hit “Much Too Young” in 1989. In it, a line about Ledoux: “A worn out tape of Chris Ledoux/Lonely women and bad booze/Seem to be the only friends I’ve left at all.”
By the time he died of cancer in 2005, at the age of 56, Ledoux has recorded and released 36 albums — most of them self-recorded. It wasn’t that he didn’t have offers from the big record labels, but Ledoux preferred his independence — a quality that became a standard trait in his songs.
After his buddy Garth lofted him to national prominence, he gave in and signed with Liberty Records. Over the next 13 years, he released nine albums with either Liberty or Capitol Nashville.
Ledoux only had two songs to ever chart on the Billboard Top 40 — “Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy” (his duet with Brooks) and “Cadillac Ranch,” both in 1992.
Ironically, the man who can be directly tied to the modern-day popularity of country music was never popular himself.
It wasn’t just by chance that Brooks — who said after Ledoux’s death that Ledoux was “just as our heroes should be; a man’s man” — and Ledoux were such good friends.
In the ‘80s, when Garth Brooks was better known as an ex-track star than a country music phenomenon, he opened a show for Ledoux. He was mesmerized by the wide-open, no-holds-barred approach Ledoux carried onto the stage. And, later, he emulated Ledoux in his own shows. The Garth Brooks style that became so well-known, that made his concerts so popular? That was copied from Chris Ledoux.
As for why Brooks went on to become famous while his protege lived his entire life and conducted his entire musical career in relative obscurity, who knows. But Brooks never forgot his indebtedness to Ledoux. As the ‘90s turned to the ‘00s and Ledoux became seriously ill with a failing liver, Brooks offered Ledoux half of his own liver.
In his concerts, when singing his old hit that lofted Ledoux to the national spotlight, Brooks would follow that particular stanza (“A worn out tape of Chris Ledoux/Lonely women and bad booze/Seem to be the only friends I’ve left at all”) by yelling, “God bless Chris Ledoux!”
And even now, a decade after his death, that’s the mantra of rodeo riders, cowboys and ranchers everywhere — and all those who can only dream of living the carefree lifestyle that Ledoux sang about in his songs.
■ Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.