Western Underground, the driving force behind the rodeo rock ‘n’ roll sound of the legendary Chris LeDoux for 16 years, is writing a new chapter.
Instead of hanging it up following the devastating loss of its charismatic lead showman and world champion professional bareback rider to a rare form of cancer in March 2005, the band regrouped and hit the road to pay tribute to their longtime boss, mentor and friend. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was what the always-supportive Chris would want them to do.
Country singer Dustin Evans, a frequent opening act and successful artist in his own right whose dad, Kyle Evans, had recorded on Chris’ independent label, seemed the natural choice to handle a majority of the vocal work in the band’s new configuration. He was invited into the band in 2005, bringing with him some great songs, an incredible voice, and a charismatic stage presence all his own.
Evans and original members Bobby Jensen (keyboards) and Mark Sissel (guitars), along with longtime drummers KW Turnbow & Chris’ son, Ned LeDoux, and bassist Lyle Evans, allowed fans to once again experience the powerful sound of Western Underground. Received with open arms at show after show, the band soon found out fans weren't thinking goodbye but anxiously anticipating what was next.
Now...as the summer of 2007 winds down, Western Underground is back, having emerged from a month-long stay in a Nashville recording studio armed with Unbridled – a brilliant batch of new music that stays true to the style and sound the band had developed behind Chris while carrying on the traditions and values that were so important to him.
Produced by Dave Brainard and Western Underground, Unbridled is a treat to listen to – the musicianship exceptional, the vocals crisp, the craftsmanship on display for all to hear. It encompasses country and western elements but still rocks heartily. It’s traditional and authentic (one literally feels as if they’ve been transported to the wide open spaces of the American West upon first and subsequent listens), yet innovative. And somehow, it causes the listener to feel both nostalgic and anticipatory. It’s cowboy and rodeo music with an edge and a fresh twist, and nobody in the business can fill that niche better than Western Underground.
Opening with the high-octane guitar riffs of the driving, anthemic title track and the dueling piano- and fiddle-laced toe-tapper, “One Hand In The Riggin,’” Unbridled gets off to a rousing start. Steel guitars weep through the third track, “Think About Rain,” a thoughtful ballad written from the view of a rancher trying to keep a positive outlook despite struggling through an awful drought, and the galloping groove of the Chris LeDoux-inspired “King Of Wyoming” (co-written by Sissel) relays the story of a man tired of city life who dreams of heading west to ride with one of his cowboy heroes.
The tongue-in-cheek “Broken In,” peppered with excellent slide guitar work throughout, adds an effective element of lightheartedness, as does the chugging sounds of the all-in-good-fun self-depreciating “Steam Engine.” An engaging Native American story effectively unfolds through the tribal feel of Sissel’s “White Buffalo,” co-penned with Randy Merrill; the band’s deep-rooted Wyoming ties are genuinely evident in “Rock Springs To Cheyenne”; while the incredibly infectious “Good ‘Ol Days To Come” and “Here” do all but force listeners to roll down their car and truck windows to experience a perfect “open road soundtrack” at high volume.
Refreshingly, Unbridled forgoes the common themes of drinking and cheating, replacing them with decidedly more positive, uplifting fare, including three songs written by Sissel, one by Evans and two by Brainard.
“We had an outstanding time in the studio,” Sissel said. “Man, it was great to finally get down to making this music. If Chris were still here, I would want him to feel like we’re carrying on what he started...that we’re reaching out to his fans with the same passion he had. If I could somehow be able to jump into his truck with him and see our disc in his player...that would be the ultimate.”
“It was pretty neat to have everyone in the studio to finally do this,” Chris’ son, Ned, adds. “Dad was always tellin' us to record something. He'd hear us jammin' during sound checks and then ask what we were playin'. It’s something Dad would be proud of I’m sure. He would say, ‘Way to go, guys.’”
During Chris’ all-too-short 56 years of life, he was indeed a rare breed. Beloved by the rodeo world, his music captured the spirit of the sport he loved so dearly - and of the American West - as few will likely ever match. Known for his sense of humor and self-deprecating manner even in the most painful of times, LeDoux was widely admired for being an unwavering example of a good man who always did the right thing. Many heroes don’t quite live up to their reputations. This Wyoming, and rodeo, hero outshined them all.
Sissel, who stood by Chris’ side for 16 years, has many fond memories of his good friend. “It was the most unbelieveable experience. It was like getting up every morning and walking down the road with John Wayne. The only difference was there was no on-screen/off-screen. Chris was the same every day – an extraordinary person with such an upstanding character; an exceptional man. I've never met anybody like him and probably never will.”
Fittingly, Western Underground closes its latest chapter – Unbridled – with a heartfelt tip of the hat to the man who joyfully logged so many miles with his band of rodeo brothers over the years.
On the final night in the studio after recording had wrapped, Ned asked if he could take a guitar in and sing one of his Dad’s songs, unaware of the magic that would shortly ensue and forever be captured on tape. The result is track #11 – a poignant version of his father’s “I’ve Got To Be A Rodeo Man.”
“I know it’s rough,” Ned says of the raw acoustic recording. “I never claimed to be a singer or guitar player but I really wanted to work up that song as a tribute from a son to his father. All through the recording process, I could tell Dad was with us. I felt that the strongest when I sang this song. It’s for him.”