It was the summer of 2000 when Chris LeDoux’s world changed. Doctors sat him down and gave the ex-rodeo-star-turned-country-singer the kind of news that had him taking stock of his life. “I sort of thought, well, I’ve had 50 great years, but if it’s time to go …” LeDoux says, his words trailing off as he recalls his initial reaction. “But I really wanted to be around a little bit longer.”
LeDoux had gone to the doctor when problems started piling up. He was fatigued, food was tasting strange, and his skin had a yellow tint. Something was wrong. The news came as a diagnosis of primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease that affects the body’s bile ducts and can devastate the liver. The same ailment afflicted late football great Walter Payton.
To the people who knew him, the idea of an ailing LeDoux seemed impossible. He was fit, active, and throughout his life carried himself like a man half his age. He was, after all, someone who spent five years building his own house from the ground up. On top of that, his distinguished career in rodeo had been punctuated in 1976 with a world championship in the bone-crunching sport of bareback bronc riding. That rodeo demeanor even carried onto the stage of his concerts, where it’s commonplace to see him riding a bucking mechanical bull or leaping off drum-risers.
The diagnosis was even more difficult for his wife, Peggy, and their five kids—Clay, 30; Ned, 25; Will, 23; Cindi, 22; and Beau, 20. “The kids were real supportive,” says the 54-year-old LeDoux, a family man through and through. “It hit my wife kind of hard. But she sort of gritted her teeth and went with it. She jumped in there and did everything she had to do and more.”
His situation became so critical that doctors put him on a waiting list for a liver transplant. As his condition worsened, his name moved up the list. “It was getting pretty bad,” he says. Friend and LeDoux fan Garth Brooks even volunteered to donate part of his liver for the transplant, but it turned out not to be a match.
Then he got a phone call. “They said, ‘We’ve got one, if you can get down here.’ So it happened that quick.” LeDoux was planning to hop on the next available commercial flight, but Brooks sent his private jet as soon as he heard the news.
On Oct. 7, 2000, within two months of going on the waiting list, LeDoux was on an operating table undergoing a transplant. Although the operation was a success, his recovery was a slow, painstaking ordeal. “I lost about 30 pounds and was as weak as a kitten,” says LeDoux, who points to family and prayer as being his strongest assets in the fight.
“It wasn’t until March that I started to do some work around the ranch, just little things. I could work for maybe an hour and then I’d have to come in the house. This went on for another three months. Then it was like when spring comes along and the sap starts rising in the trees. I sort of started feeling the same way. I started to get my strength back,” he says. “There are still ups and downs, but things are wonderful now.”
How it began
Life for LeDoux has been pretty wonderful, considering he’s lived out his dream.
He was born in Biloxi, Miss., the son of Al and Bonnie LeDoux. With his father being an Air Force officer, his family resided everywhere from France to New York. “We were all over the place until I was about 12, and then we wound up in Texas,” he recalls.
It was in Austin that LeDoux discovered the rodeo. His zest for the sport is evident as he describes his first bucking horse. “It was a giddy excitement that first time,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I rode him out there and the wind was in my face and I could see his ears going up and down. He kind of turned and I fell off and hit the ground. Boy, it was fun!”
His family later moved to Cheyenne, Wyo., where his love of rodeo and the cowboy life grew. After a stint at college on a rodeo scholarship, and numerous wins at amateur events, he left school and joined the rodeo circuit professionally.
Rodeo life wasn’t easy, especially with a wife. It was his marriage to Peggy Rhoads on Jan. 4, 1972, however, that inspired him to record many of the songs he wrote during his high school and college days.
LeDoux recalls, “I remember after I got married, and wasn’t winning, me and my wife were living in a little Suburban, going down the road. I had $600 in a savings account and I called my dad. He got on the phone and said, ‘Aren’t you getting tired of the road?’
“I didn’t mind going hungry or living on beans and stuff, but being married, I didn’t want my wife to have to go without. So, I thought, ‘Why not put these songs on a tape and sort of subsidize my rodeo winnings?’ Now, that’s actually how we started doing it.”
With the help of his family, who started their own company, American Cowboy Songs Inc., LeDoux’s singing career was born. “My dad was really kind of the driving force behind me,” he says. “My mom, my little brother and sister, they even helped out, too. Looking back, if it wasn’t for them I’d probably be sweeping out a bar somewhere.” Essentially, LeDoux put on tape the lifestyle of the rodeo cowboy, with songs of bucking horses, eight-second rides, and all the highs and lows that go with the nomadic sport.
He set out selling tapes, often from the back of his truck. By 1979, he had sold a whopping 200,000 copies of his homemade tapes. By the late ’80s, he had a following for songs such as Bareback Jack, Copenhagen, and I Can’t Ride The Broncs Anymore. Although he retired from the rodeo in 1980, his music flourished. In 1990, his talent finally grabbed the attention of Capitol Records, which signed him to a contract.
LeDoux’s first album following his life-saving transplant surgery came in 2002 and was titled After the Storm. But instead of his typical cowboy tales and upbeat barn burners, he revealed his ordeal and feelings through the album’s songs. “I was drawn to these certain kind of songs,” he says. “I wasn’t feeling too good and I was pretty emotional still. So I recorded some pretty thoughtful things.” The album was partially a further declaration of love to Peggy, his wife of more than 30 years. “It’s about mutual respect,” LeDoux says, referring to the secret of their longevity. “We just love each other and we’re friends.”
Similarly, his new album, Horsepower, reflects his current state of mind—one that’s feeling alive and well again. One song, Gettin’ Into Something Good, points to his rejuvenated frame of mind. LeDoux sings: “Feel like I’m gettin’ into something good/Don’t want to stop so I’m knockin’ on wood/I think my streak of bad luck is over/I’m rollin’ in a field of five-leaf clovers.”
These days, he’s content to perform his high-energy show 50 days a year and spend the rest with family on his 4,000-acre Wyoming ranch near the Bighorn Mountains.
“I enjoy being outdoors,” he says. “Right now I’m planting apple trees. We have cows, Angus, and we raise a little hay. It’s not a lucrative thing, but it can afford a living. It’s a wonderful sanctuary, too.”
The sanctuary has proven beneficial. If you don’t believe it, just pop in his latest CD, sit back and listen to this cowboy sing:
“Feel like I’m swingin’ on a lucky star/Choir of angels singing in my heart/I’m smilin’ like I never thought I could/Feel like I’m gettin’ into some kind of something good.”