|Written By: Tom Gardner
RENO, Nev.- Once Chris LeDoux mounted the mechanical bull for his customary concert finale, there was no question. Eight months after the liver transplant that saved his life, the singer was back.
``It took a long time,'' he said. ``It was like four months, well, kind of like hell. Now it's been about eight months and I feel about 90 percent.''
LeDoux learned in August he had primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver disease with no known cause but a certain outcome without a transplant. It's what killed Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.
A donor was found, and LeDoux underwent surgery on Oct. 7, five days after he turned 52.
The recovery was tough for the bronc-riding Wyoming cowboy.
``In the beginning, it's kind of like your spirit just goes in a hole somewhere and all joy in life is gone,'' he said. ``My family went through a lot just supporting me. And the fans and a lot of my friends.''
One of those friends is Garth Brooks, who offered to donate part of his liver. A transplant does not necessarily require an entire new liver because the organ can regenerate.
Tests revealed that Brooks' liver was not compatible.
``They had to take samples of his (liver),'' LeDoux said. ``I went through that myself and three days of that's pretty painful. For him to go through that, it's pretty amazing.
``I never would in my wildest dreams think of a guy wanting to offer part of himself. He just heard I needed a liver and made up his mind he was going to make the attempt to have part of his,'' LeDoux said.
``Said it might help my singing, too.''
Brooks doesn't discuss his offer, but he's quick to praise one of his mentors.
``It's one of those weird things that happens when a hero becomes a friend of yours, but never ceases to be a hero,'' Brooks said from his home in Oklahoma.
The careers of the two men have long been intertwined.
By 1989, LeDoux had released 22 albums. They were mostly cassettes produced by his parents, which he sold at concerts and rodeos. He had a loyal, if limited, fan base.
That year, Brooks had a hit with ``Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),'' which included the line: ``The worn-out tape of Chris LeDoux, lonely women and bad booze/seem to be the only friends I've left at all.''
The song came at a time when LeDoux's career was sputtering along with an independent label and no marketing.
``And here he comes along and mentions the worn-out tapes in his song. To me, Garth, he's kind of like my guardian angel. It's like every time I need some help, he's there.''
LeDoux eventually signed with Brooks' record label.
``I guess we've sold, since I've been with Capitol, like 51/2 million records - or CDs, nowadays,'' LeDoux said.
Brooks opened for LeDoux early in his career and was awed by the energy and pyrotechnics in the cowboy singer's show.
``The whole Garth Brooks stage show came from that club where we fronted for Chris LeDoux,'' Brooks said. ``That's where something clicked.''
Before he rides the bucking machine in his show, LeDoux spends about 90 fast-paced minutes running around the stage. He sings about rodeos, cowboys, their hats, horses and snuff.
``The early days I was writing songs, they were pretty traditional with a little twist on some of them, but then somewhere in the mid-'80s, I decided, `I want to rock a little bit,' and I started making the transition right there. A song like `Hooked on an 8 Second Ride' is just straight-ahead rock 'n' roll.
``You can be country, you can be Western, but you can still be a little rock 'n' roll.''
His June 15 appearance at the Reno Rodeo marked his first full concert since his operation. He rode competitively there in 1977, the year after winning the world bareback championship. His last professional ride was in 1984.
``I was writing songs all the time I was rodeoing and sort of built up this pile of songs and eventually decided to put them on tape,'' he said. ``As the rodeo career sort of dwindled away, the recording career picked up.''
He said he started writing and recording rodeo songs because nobody else was doing it.
Now, LeDoux says, he'd rather be out fixing fences or irrigating than sitting in a room writing music.
Of his bronc-riding days, he said, ``I'd a done it for free. I can remember reaching a point thinking, `If they'd just give me a hamburger a day and let me go on, that's all I want.'
``It's just spiritual. It's just joy, happiness, the challenge. The sun shining straight down in the middle of the summer and the smell of the dirt and the blue sky and that buckin' horse underneath you. You can't describe it to anybody. Most people have their minds made up you're nuts anyway, so it's really hard to explain it to somebody that's never done it.''
Brooks said it's the love of rodeo and everything cowboy that makes LeDoux unique.
``He don't just sing about it,'' he said. ``He IS it.''
This is an article from the Associated Press, Wednesday, June 20, 2001