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LeDoux's voice goes silent, but his influence remains
Saturday, March 12, 2005
Chuck Yarborough. Plain Dealer Reporter

He died Wednesday, so little-known that this paper didn't even bother to note his passing under the "Deaths Elsewhere" headline.

What a pity. Chris LeDoux, 56, was directly responsible for the current popularity of country music, a surge that began in the mid-1980s.

Wait, you say. That was Garth Brooks who did that, right? Garth "Ropin' the Wind." Garth being "Shameless." Garth driving the rain-swept streets of "Thunder Road."

Brooks, whose colossal ego is exceeded only by his talent, will tell you that Chris LeDoux made him the performer who electrified audiences with rowdy, boisterous and all-out fun live shows.

Country radio DJ Jim Mantel, who handles the morning-drive microphone at WGAR FM/99.5, knows Brooks and knew LeDoux. The day after LeDoux's death because of complications from liver cancer, Mantel told of a little conversation he'd had with Brooks.

Brooks' path to legend status included a night opening for LeDoux, and that's the story Mantel told listeners on Thursday. The amiable ex-track star Brooks did his few minutes in the spotlight, ably pickin' and a-grinnin' but as motionless as an East Texas mesquite tree.

When it was over, Brooks planted himself in the wings, watched and learned.

LeDoux rode the crowd the way he rode bareback broncs to the 1976 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world championship. He was all over the stage, dancing, acting up, having a wild-eyed blast while singing some of the best-written songs in any genre.

It was Brooks' epiphany. From that one show was born the Garth persona who turned country music on its ear. The genre has never been the same.

In this case, the student eclipsed the teacher. In some ways, that's good. Love him or hate him, Brooks resuscitated country music. It is to Brooks' credit that he never forgot the debt he owed LeDoux. When liver cancer forced his mentor to undergo a transplant several years ago, Brooks offered LeDoux half of his own liver.

But for the most part, the general public missed the LeDoux tugboat hauling the Garth ocean liner into port. And that's too bad. LeDoux's music, like the man himself, is some of the best to come down the pike in a long, long time.

A bit about the man: LeDoux was born in Biloxi, Miss., in 1948. As the son of an Air Force pilot, he moved around -- a lot -- dividing most of his time between Texas and Wyoming. He finished high school in Austin, Texas, and spent the final years of his life on his ranch outside Kaycee, Wyo. He was married for more than 30 years to wife Peggy. They had five kids, and by all accounts he was a doting father. One son is the drummer in his band.

Musically, LeDoux sold 6 million copies of the 36 albums he recorded, the last, Horsepower, in 2003. His 1999 20 Greatest Hits CD has duets with Brooks, Jon Bon Jovi, Charlie Daniels and Toby Keith. It includes songs he wrote, plus tunes by everyone from Tom Cochrane to Bruce Springsteen to Joe Ely. It is a primer on what should be on a country music album.

In the course of my career, I've done three or four interviews with LeDoux. Every conversation felt like two old friends sitting at my grandma's kitchen table at our family ranch in East Texas, swapping lies, sipping sweet tea and listening to an impatient bull call for his supper.

It's memories like these that make me want to echo Brooks in his live version of "Much Too Young (to Feel This Damn Old)":

The worn out tape of Chris LeDoux,
Lonely women and bad booze
Seem to be the only friends I've left at all.

And at the close of this stanza, Brooks yells out, "God bless Chris LeDoux."

Say it again for me, Garth. Say it again.