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Not Just Backups

By: MARK COWLING, Staff Writer April 10, 2007

FLORENCE - Some 18 years ago, country music singer-songwriter Chris LeDoux took a bar band from suburban Salt Lake City, taught them his music, named them Western Underground and carried them with him to stardom.
Not the selfish type, LeDoux often encouraged them to have a career of their own. Sadly, they were faced with that option much sooner than anyone expected; LeDoux died of cancer two years ago last month.
Some groups don't survive such a loss. But the band's guitarist, Mark Sissel, thought they should go out at least once more.
"I was going to pick out these spots (which drew) the biggest, most loyal followings that we've done many, many times. ... Almost like a farewell tour to just go back to the fans, because everybody was just taken aback, it just seemed so sudden."
The group added Dustin Evans, a longtime friend and frequent opening act, to help out with vocals.
They soon found out fans weren't thinking goodbye, but the next chapter of Western Underground. "They were happy to hear the music again, they were glad we were continuing it on," Sissel said.
While LeDoux will always be with them in spirit, they're determined not to be stuck in the past.
"We're not a tribute band. That's not our intent. We're not trying to be Chris, replace Chris or anything like that. We are and always will celebrate his music, and always play some of it."
Sissel said it's unlikely they'll go off on tangents in conflict with LeDoux's rodeo rock 'n' roll style.
"We can't start wearing ball caps, spiking our hair up and, you know, doing cheatin' songs. We keep it fun and energetic and in the spirit that would make Chris happy. But we also have to establish our identity."
Fans at Country Thunder this week will have some chances to see and hear the new chapter of Western Underground. The group has played this event in prior years, in both Florence and Queen Creek, but this will be their first time here since LeDoux's passing.
"The Southwest and the West was always dominantly a little more Chris LeDoux territory," Sissel said by phone from his office in Nashville. "We've been coming in and out of the Phoenix area since I was very first with Chris in the late '80s, so we know so many people down there. People have asked me, 'Where's one of your favorite venues to play?' It was never so much about the place, it was about the people or the fans.
"Wherever they love you and love your music, that's a great place to play. When you look out there - and I don't care if it's in the back of somebody's barn, just in a pasture - when they're there to hear the music and getting into it and everybody's smiling, that's a great place to play."
At festivals like Country Thunder there are more opportunities for fans to mingle and see old friends, and it's much the same story for the artists.
"You have a lot of acts in throughout the day, so that's generally one of the few times you get to run across some of your friends from other acts. There's some reunion aspects to it where you get to run into old friends," Sissel said.
Western Underground has definitely been around long enough to know some people. Sissel has been touring since 1976. He and keyboard player Robert Jensen are the only two "originals" left from the night LeDoux first came to hear their band at a club. "There were only four of us then."
When the band went to work for LeDoux in 1989, LeDoux already had made more than 20 albums, all self-released. Despite offers from various record labels, LeDoux had refused to sign a recording contract, choosing instead to retain his independence and control over his music. Before they hit the big time, the band learned from their new boss how to do things the LeDoux way.
"We made a record before we ever did a show," Sissel said. "I didn't know a lot about Chris at the time. Creating that first independent record with him was a whole experience because of the way Chris LeDoux was, and how he spoke about music.
"He never said, 'Hey, this is in D' and ... there were no musical terms. 'Four bars and come in boys.' None of that. If he was going to tell you about a song we were going to try to play, or create, he'd paint a picture for you. He'd tell you about the sand blowing through the windmill, it's kind of purply outside, you can hear that fly buzzing around. Our job was to put that in musical form.
"In the beginning we just sort of stood there with our mouths open. I was fascinated by it right from the start, thinking, 'Wow, this guy sees music just like pictures.' I mean that's the ultimate: That's the way you're supposed to see it."
That same year, LeDoux received national exposure when Garth Brooks mentioned him in a song. LeDoux signed a contract with Capitol Records subsidiary Liberty Records and released his first national album, "Western Underground," in 1991.
"Boy it was a rocket ride from that point on," Sissel said. "Now we're on the national scene, playing these places. And we're all just (with) mouths gaped open and thinking, 'Wow. This is wild.'"
Eventually, two of the original Western Underground members grew weary of the road and retired.
The band over time has gotten bigger, including adding a second drummer, LeDoux's son Ned. The regular drummer, KW Turnbow, was in a car wreck and "kind of destroyed his right shoulder," Sissel said. "So he was out of the picture for about seven months while they replaced that shoulder and he healed up. In that down time, Ned came in.
"At that time, Ned was - I know he wasn't of legal drinking age - 19 or 20. He used to sit in at shows and do a song. So I'd heard him play a little bit, he was pretty good. So Ned came in and did a great job.
"Then KW got healed up and came back, and Chris being a loyal guy that he is, said, 'Hey, it's your gig.' For about the last seven years, I think, we were together with Chris, we had both of them. It took them a little bit to develop how they were going to do it, but they figured it out."
Looking back on those years touring behind LeDoux, "It was the most unbelievable 16 years," Sissel said. "With a guy like that it's just an extraordinary experience. I've never met anybody like him and probably never will. Such an upstanding, outstanding character that he is."
Sissel is also active in the business end of the group. He was tour manager for most of his years with LeDoux, and is still tour manager today. "I'm pretty much the whole deal. I'm publicist, manager, tour manager. ..."
As long as the fans keep coming, Western Underground expects to keep playing.
"We want to be out there for as long as they want us to be out there. We will always stay in that same vein, following those great traditions that we got from Chris LeDoux. So it's keeping the spirit alive and giving them something new to hang onto also."

On stage
Western Underground will play at Country Thunder USA east of Florence at 10:30 p.m. Thursday and 8:30 p.m. Friday on the Graham Central Station stage, and at 1:15 p.m. Friday on the Main Stage.