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Farewell to a real cowboy singer

by Chris Martin
April 6, 2005

This is strictly my opinion and perhaps it holds water with some, or maybe not, but I firmly believe the founding father of modern Western music passed away March 9, 2005.

What makes this man different from many of the other modern country western stars, or even those from the old school, was that he actually lived a rodeo life. For those of you who do not yet know who I am writing about, the gentleman is none other than Chris LeDoux. Born on the second day of October in 1948 in Biloxi, Miss., this Army "brat" was moved from his birth state to states like Texas, Oklahoma and eventually Wyoming, where he put down some permanent roots.

All during this time he, like many other early wave Baby Boomers, was raised on the new medium of television and the nostalgic look at the West.

Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy were the heroes of LeDoux and many others during those early postwar years. But unlike many of his peers, LeDoux took the message to heart and began at an early age to live as a cowboy - not only learning to ride a horse but to go way beyond that and learn to rodeo.

He learned to rope, ride bulls, ride saddle bronc as well as bareback, and once said in order to really win he needed to "give everything I had to one event if I wanted to excel."

And that one event was bareback bronc riding. By 1964 he was the Little Britches Rodeo Bareback World Champion and in 1967 the Wyoming State High School Bareback Bronc Champion.

LeDoux went on to major in art, physical education and rodeo at both Casper and Sheridan community colleges before accepting a rodeo scholarship from Eastern New Mexico University in 1969. That same year he won the National Intercollegiate Bareback Riding Championship.

It was also that year he won $400 in Fort Worth for Bareback riding at a Pro Rodeo event and decided to leave school for what he hoped would be greener pastures.

Life is rough for any rodeo cowboy and the time between winnings can often be referred to as a forced diet. Let's be honest about this, how many heavyweight rodeo cowboys to you see on the circuit? Next to none is a pretty good estimation, and LeDoux was no different. He once stated in an interview that he would sit around in restaurants and wait until someone had finished their meal and left the table "so I could finish what they left."

Like life for many other professional rodeo cowboys, LeDoux's early years on the road was often lonely, sparse and financially speaking, a scary place to be. But during his teenage years he had also picked up a music habit and began to play guitar and also the ability to pen lyrics.

It was this second love of his that would eventually help pave the way for financial security. LeDoux's first dream was to win the pro-rodeo championship for bareback riding, but his second was music, and it would be this latter endeavor that helped fund his goal.

By the early 1970s he was a regular on the circuit, doing as many rodeos as his body would tolerate. I called up Gary Williams, who is currently the general manager for the Tucson Rodeo, to see if LeDoux had ever made his way through Tucson. It was probably a pretty dumb question, but Mr. Williams was extremely polite and actually a treasure trove of information.

It appears his and LeDoux's lives kind of mirrored each other. Both born in 1948 and both having a love for Rodeo, Williams ended up being a bull rider on and off during the 1970s, his main career years taking place in 1977/1978.

"Tucson was a huge stop and he (LeDoux) was here every year" during the first few years of the 1970s "and Chris was pretty good," Williams told me.

Williams, who was born and raised in Tucson and graduated from Rincon High School and the University of Arizona, said the rest of the cowboys loved to have LeDoux around since he would entertain them with his music.

"He was great entertainment and the cowboys loved it when he was at their rodeos."

Williams went on to say that one reason why the other cowboys loved his music was that it hit home. Unlike many other writers or singers of Western music who might not actually have lived the life they are singing about, LeDoux's music was homespun reality about life on the road for a rodeo cowboy and the hits and misses they live.

And it can be a really tough life, with nearly 700 sanctioned rodeos happening across the country every year. Not only do you have to travel to all these different locations, but you must also pay the entry fees, which can run from $150 to $200, Williams said.

LeDoux certainly came to Tucson in the '70s because our rodeo is one of the biggies.

"If you were to look at it from a collegiate point of view, our rodeo would be the Rose Bowl," Williams said. And to put the pressure on even thicker, not only is Tucson having its rodeo, but also San Antonio and San Angelo, Texas. So these cowboys are burning rubber between these three locations during a 10-day period.

Williams, who not only rode bulls but also did a stint as a rodeo clown, graduated from the UA in 1972 with a business major while attending school on a rodeo scholarship and is obviously putting it to good use today. Williams told me that the time around Independence Day is often referred to as "Cowboy Christmas" since so many rodeos are taking place.

During the 1970s he had been writing and recording his music and selling eight tracks, cassettes and albums from the back of the pickup truck during that era. Not only that, but his family and friends had been selling these items from feed stores or through the mail.

Using his own label "Lucky Man," LeDoux developed a following by singing about his own experiences with an ever-increasing sprinkling of rock. By 1982 he had sold more than 250,000 copies of his own label. But he was still just getting by until 1989 when the rising superstar of country, Garth Brooks, released his song "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)" which included this one little line, "A worn-out tape of Chris LeDoux, lonely women and bad booze/seem to be the only friends I've Left at all."

LeDoux later said in an interview he was driving when he heard the song and had to pull over before he wrecked his pickup since he was so shocked by the lyrics.

Eventually Brooks advised his label to go out to Utah and catch one of LeDoux's shows and within a matter of months the Rodeo Cowboy was singing for Nashville. Brooks and LeDoux did a duet "Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy" which was nominated for a Grammy in 1993 and an album by the same name went gold that same year. After signing with Capital, LeDoux went on to release 12 CDs that sold nearly six million copies, three of which went gold.

In 2000 LeDoux underwent a liver transplant, which was successful. But late last year he developed cancer of the bile duct and was undergoing treatment when he passed away this March.