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Losing, and finding, Chris LeDoux

Special to the Star-Tribune Monday, October 30, 2006

KAYCEE -- Chris LeDoux had a public life and a private life, although not necessarily in that order.

His life was characterized by so many dichotomies. He was a struggling rodeo cowboy singer turned country superstar, a small-town neighbor with a major fan base, a sex symbol whose devotion to his wife won him the respect of men and women alike.

“He was just as common and down to earth as the rest of us,” said Kaycee historian Stella Brock. “The celebrity didn't come to Kaycee, the celebrity was out in the public. We got Chris LeDoux.”

When LeDoux died of cancer in March 2005, there was no massive funeral in Kaycee. The ceremony was a private one at his ranch outside of town.

But in keeping with the dichotomy, Garth Brooks was there -- he and Trisha Yearwood stopped into Streeter Supply, in downtown Kaycee, checking their directions to the LeDoux home.

LeDoux was a world-champion bronc rider, and the rodeo world reveres him; he was a country music artist, and the music industry embraced him; he was a talented visual artist and sculptor, whose works are funny and sincere; and though he wasn't born here, he was a resident of Kaycee, which claims him as a native son.

So his death of cancer at 56 marked a loss in all those areas, not to mention the loss to his family. People in Kaycee say Peggy LeDoux cries every day.

She declined through friends to be interviewed for this story.

No one interviewed for this story wanted to talk about grieving. Especially not now, when LeDoux's friends Bill and Donna Vold Larsen are gearing up to put on the second annual rodeo, art show and concert in LeDoux's memory next weekend in Casper.

“We are celebrating his life,” said Donna Vold Larsen. “We are wanting to shed no more tears. ... We need to celebrate that we even got to know him.”

The singing cowboy

Chris LeDoux won the world championship in bareback riding once, in 1976. Last year he was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in two categories, bareback riding and “notables,” his music.

His buddy Bruce Ford of Kersey, Colo., who won the world championship five times between 1979 and 1987, remembers the singing. His story is the one told and retold when it comes to the legend of LeDoux as Kaycee's “singing cowboy”: LeDoux sang so much on the road with his fellow cowboys that he was sort of banished by them to sing in a motel bathroom where, LeDoux said, the acoustics were better anyway.

LeDoux may not have been the greatest bronc rider of all time or the best singer of all time, but he worked at it, Ford said.

His dedication and effort enabled LeDoux to do anything he wanted to do, Ford said, adding that his friend was honest and good to his family and definitely blessed.

“I feel like I was extremely close to Chris -- I knew the inside of Chris,” said Ford. “You talk about a great loss, and it may have been a great loss to the rodeo world, but Chris had salvation. He knew the Lord before he died.”

If he saw him again, Ford said, “I'd probably just give him a hug.”

The real deal

Mark Sissel, LeDoux's longtime manager and bandmate in Ledoux's Western Underground, which will perform at The Arena at the Natrona County Fairgrounds on Saturday night, also misses his friend.

“There was no on-screen, off-screen,” Sissel says. Perhaps the most marked example of this was his unabashed devotion to his wife, which Sissel says he saw time and again.

Backstage, when women would approach LeDoux, asking the singer for a hug, “Chris would say, 'Well, I save those for my wife, but I'll shake your hand.'” Sissel said women would swoon when he said this.

“He was exactly like that every day,” Sissel said.

Sissel echoed Ford in describing LeDoux's ability to set his sights on something -- anything -- and achieve it. That apparently included playing golf.

“He went at it full-on,” Sissel said. “When he'd be on the road at a hotel, he'd ask the clerk where the nearest golf course was. He'd have his clubs and his Carhartts on and head to the golf course.”

People might've complained here and there about LeDoux's desire to infuse his country songs with rock -- Sissel described it as “Gene Autry meets Led Zeppelin” -- to feature pyrotechnics at his shows, or even to be a cowboy playing golf, Sissel said.

“People might say, 'This ain't Chris LeDoux, this pyro -- blowing stuff up.' But that was who he was. Nobody changes Chris LeDoux,” Sissel said. “His lyrics are always Western singing and about the same values.”

This weekend's show in Casper may open the way many Western Underground concerts do, with a bit of sadness from the fans attending, Sissel said. They miss LeDoux. But that changes with the music, Sissel said.

Western Underground, which formed with LeDoux 16 years ago, has a new lead singer, Dustin Evans, and while it plays Chris LeDoux songs, it is not a tribute band, Sissel says.

“We weren't trying to replace Chris -- nobody can,” Sissel said. “We're always trying to carry his flag but still be ourselves.”

Art show

The Larsens' collection of LeDoux memorabilia, which will be shown at the Parkway Plaza on Friday, includes sketches and sculpture by LeDoux that the Larsens hope will give the public another example of their friend's creativity and humor. The sketches are fairly personal, and include drawings of Bill Larsen, with whom LeDoux rodeoed in college.

LeDoux had never had a showing of his work when alive. Donna said she and her husband established the collection after LeDoux's death with the intention that it would be a traveling exhibition. So far it has been shown in Casper at the Nicolaysen Art Museum and at the Old West Museum in Cheyenne.

How would LeDoux react to having an art show?

“I would hope he'd be proud,” Donna said. “He was a humble man but he was a gifted artist, and most people don't know that about him.”

“I know exactly what he'd have said,” Bill said. “He'd have said, 'Oh shoot!'"