08 July 2011

Playlist: Chris LeDoux at Capitol

After Garth Brooks dropped Chris LeDoux's name in his debut single "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)" in 1989, the former bareback bronc-rider became a labelmate of Garth at Capitol Records.  LeDoux's sales were a scant fraction of Garth's; he has but one gold certification signifying shipment of half a million units of one album--and wouldn't you know it, but that's the album that features a duet between LeDoux and Brooks.  During his time with Capitol Records, LeDoux re-recorded many of the songs he'd been performing for decades on the rodeo circuit after he made the transition to musical entertainment.  He also recorded some new songs, not all of which came from his own pen.  Radio play was all but non-existent east of the Mississippi River which meant that you had to buy his albums and learn the material yourself rather than be spoon-fed singles.

I really liked this, actually, as it meant I went into each album without any real prejudice about which were the stronger or weaker songs.  Being a Chris LeDoux fan is pretty much the opposite of being a fan of nearly any other commercial recording artist, because there's very little "commercial" about him!  In truth, I could have thrown any 80 minutes' worth of songs together and it would be worth hearing but I focused on my personal favorites.  That said, I confess that many of these songs appear frequently on the numerous LeDoux compilations (Best of, Rodeo Rock 'n Roll Collection, 20 Greatest Hits, Anthology, Volume 1The Ultimate Collection as well as The Capitol Collection [1990-2000] box set of his first six studio albums).

"Hooked On An 8 Second Ride"
(Chris LeDoux) from the album Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy

The opening of this song makes it perfect for starting a playlist: a teasingly slow beginning, and then full throttle energy.  When I was fortunate enough to see one of his rare performances in Kentucky in 2003, he played this near the end of the show.  Opening, encore, in a box, with a fox; wherever.  I just dig this song and its "Barracuda" riffs.

"Cadillac Cowboy"
(Chuck Pyle) from the album Western Underground

This song is laid back, just kind of enjoying some time on the road between rodeos.  Not a lot of urgency to this one, which makes it a great song to play while driving.  If you pay attention to the lyrics, though, it's obvious that Chris is getting a little antsy.

"Cadillac Ranch"
(Chuck Jones/Chris Waters) from the album Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy

Not the Springsteen song!  Seemed fitting to pair with "Cadillac Cowboy."  This is a story song about a family down on its luck who save themselves by converting their failing family farm into a happening bar.  I was always a little perturbed by the list of everyone's duties, which include taking admission at the door, setting up drinks at the bar, keeping the dance floor hopping..."and Daddy kicks back with a big cigar!"  I'm sure Daddy busted his ass during the farm days, but just smoking stogies?

"Don't It Make You Want To Dance"
(Rusty Wier) from the album After the Storm

Proof that LeDoux was willing to consider songs from various aesthetics, this was an Urban Cowboy-era tune originally that he recorded at a time when mainstream country had no idea what its official view of that disco-influenced time was.  LeDoux liked the song and he makes it his own.  It's easy to conjure images of a small town barn dance with him singing this.

"Billy The Kid"
(Charlie Daniels) from the album Haywire

I could have done an entire playlist of story songs.  This one about Billy the Kid staying "a mile ahead of Garrett/and one step out of Hell" has a cool sound to it befitting the romanticized image of Billy Bonney that has been handed down since he notched those alleged kills.

"One Tonight"
(Craig Wiseman/Al Anderson) from the album One Road Man

Speaking of cool sounds, I love this one.  This one is about daring a lover to throw caution to the wind and see where the night takes the couple.  I love live-in-the-moment songs like this.

"Runaway Love"
(Michael Caruso/Dennis Matkosky/Tamara Champlin) from the album One Road Man

A little cheat on my part, as this song follows "One Tonight" to open One Road Man.  It's a terrific one-two punch and I couldn't find a reason not to retain the sequencing.  "Runaway Love" is sort of a continuation of the theme of "One Tonight," only this time it's about hitting the road and seeing how far the adventuresome couple can make it during the night.  Nice love song; great road song.

"Tougher Than The Rest"
(Bruce Springsteen)

This one is a Springsteen song!  What I love about Chris LeDoux is that he was a solid songwriter who knew what he wanted to say, but also a master interpreter of other people's lyrics.  And unlike most of his contemporaries in mainstream country at the time, he knew how to take a song outside his musical aesthetics and make it fit what he did.  Too often, we hear country artists try to make themselves fit a pop or rock song instead of finding a way that the song can fit them.

"County Fair"
(Chris LeDoux) from the album Western Underground

This might be my favorite Chris LeDoux song, actually.  I absolutely love it.  The premise is simple enough: he's had a hard day at work and is excited to go to the county fair where he hopes to find some romance.  Anyone who was an adolescent or young adult in a small community knows this excitement.  Who doesn't enjoy laughing for several minutes on the Scrambler, using it as an excuse to get close to someone?

"Pass My Hat" duet with Jo-El Sonnier
(Doug Kershaw) from the album Horsepower

What could be more fun than pairing a rodeo cowboy with an accordion-playing Cajun?  LeDoux and Sonnier trade verses in English and French, respectively about a young man who knows he's overstayed his welcome at his sweetheart's family dinner table.  Fun stuff.

"Bang A Drum" duet with Jon Bon Jovi
(Jon Bon Jovi) from the album One Road Man

Name anyone else who has recorded a duet with both Jo-El Sonnier and Jon Bon Jovi!  LeDoux's son introduced him to "Bang a Drum," which he found himself loving enough that he contacted Bon Jovi to find out if he'd participate in a duet version.  Bon Jovi agreed, on the basis that it also have a music video.  The result is an entirely unexpected gem.

"Workin' Man's Dollar"
(Chris LeDoux) from the album Western Underground

Some might find this one a little too "Norman Rockwell," but there's an earnestness here that I think makes it work.  This one is about how money circulated among the working class is different from white collar money, and describes some of the hands through which a hypothetical dollar bill would pass.  Simplistic, sure, but quite vivid.

"The Borderline"
(Teddy Gentry/Greg Fowler/Larry Hanson/Virgil Beckham) from the album One Road Man

Another story song, this one is about a lawman and a cowboy who partner to pursue a gang of criminals into Mexico.  "The lawman wanted justice/the cowboy needs revenge," we're told.  Classic Old West storytelling.  If you listen, you can hear a gut string guitar played by Willie Nelson.

"Whatcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy" duet with Garth Brooks
(Garth Brooks/Mark D. Sanders) from the album Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy

A rather humorous cautionary tale warning women (ostensibly uptown women) against dabbling with a cowboy.  He might be fun tonight, but Chris and Garth ask you to consider what you'll do "when he don't saddle up and ride away."  Great karaoke song if you're in a honky tonk and have a willing buddy (or three).

"Rodeo Moon"
(Toby Keith/Chris LeDoux) from the album Horsepower

"Rodeo Moon" looks back on the early, lean years of marriage between a rodeo cowboy and his wife.  The theme of the song is how love got them through some rough times.  There's an endearing sweetness to this song that makes it accessible even to those of us who've never been to, much less in, a rodeo.

"Riding For A Fall"
(Chris LeDoux) from the album Western Underground

For those who found "Rodeo Moon"'s endorsement of the married life too saccharine, there's "Riding for a Fall."  Here, Chris addresses an unnamed cowboy who thinks he's doing just fine without a woman in his life, making the case for companionship.  There's nothing wrong with being emotionally independent, but there's nothing wise about going it alone just to prove a point, either.

"Bareback Jack"
(Chris LeDoux) from the album After the Storm

This one is for those who found "Riding for a Fall" too subtle.  "Bareback Jack" is a song sung in first-person about a young man so obsessed with being a rodeo cowboy that he says it'll take being crippled to slow him down.  It's a celebration of the stubbornness of the rodeo culture, but should suffice as an allegory for the rest of us who know we can be single-minded and defiant at times.

"Silence On The Line"
(Sterling L. Whipple) from the album Cowboy

This is another story song, and a bittersweet follow-up to "Bareback Jack."  Our protagonist here is calling home to tell his wife that there's a rodeo buddy whose career has been ended by injury, and he'd like her to make him welcome at their home.  She resists, pointing out what kind of burden he would be to their home.  This is very much a song about humility, and it's very moving.  LeDoux doesn't force the emotion, instead letting the song evoke a response on its own.

"Copenhagen" with Toby Keith
(Chris LeDoux) from the compilation album Rodeo Rock and Roll Collection

An endorsement of chewing tobacco that pokes some fun at its users and then ventures into the realm of hyperbole (take note of what it "cures").  "Copenhagen" is pure fun, and it's hard to tell whether it's LeDoux or Toby Keith who enjoys this cut more.  Note: this is the only non-Christmas song recorded by LeDoux at Capitol records between 1990 and 2000 that is not included in The Capitol Collection (1990-2000) box set.

"Under This Old Hat"
(Mike Anthony/Larry Cordle) from the album Under This Old Hat

Our protagonist is older now, reminding his lover (wife is implied) that his adoration of her hasn't diminished with time.  LeDoux could make these kinds of songs work because his own marriage had withstood the test of time and by all accounts he and his wife were still very much in love with one another throughout.

"This Cowboy's Hat"
(Jake Brooks) from the album Western Underground

The final act in our "hat" trilogy, and the last story song of the playlist.  "This Cowboy's Hat" describes an altercation in a bar where some bikers get it into their heads that they ought to pick on the cowboy for his attire.  He regales them--us, really--with the story of the hat and how personal an item it is.  Throughout the song there's a genuine tension (bolstered by the music behind LeDoux's vocals, including some aggressive percussion), and ultimately a message about how different groups of people can--and should--still be able to respect one another.

"Life Is A Highway"
(Tom Cochrane) from the album One Road Man

One last outside-the-box cover song, but this one might just be the perfect microcosm for the Chris LeDoux discography, as well as his outlook on life.  Between his years in the rodeo life and then as a stage performer, LeDoux was no stranger to the highway, and he was driven by an optimistic enthusiasm for exploring life.  I almost ended with "One Less Tornado" from his final album, and briefly considered closing with Garth Brooks's tribute song "Good Ride Cowboy," but this just felt more appropriate.