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CW: What made people so fiercely loyal to Chris and his music?
Mark Sissel: I think people just believe him. However he says it, half sings it . . . talks it . . . what he says . . . .sometimes the phrasing doesn’t always fit . . . he just told stories and he told it the way it was. And one of his old fans said to me, she said, “He was special to us . . . because he was our guy. Mainstream radio or whatever, we didn’t care about all that stuff. We were rodeo people. We were ranch people. And he was one of us.” He sang stories and told tales about life that all those people knew. And we on the outside, having not run down that trial, didn’t specifically know it. Even non country fans . . . I think you had to see the show. You see him, and you know he wasn’t there tryin’ to be cool. He wasn’t there tryin’ to impress girls or anything like that . . . like some of us get in the business for! (chuckles) He wanted everybody to have fun. He had a youthful heart. And all those things just made him so believable and so much fun.
I always thought that the show was like rodeo to him somehow. We were musicians and didn’t know anything about rodeo, but he took us behind the chutes and stuff and wanted us to understand where he was coming from . . . and get the adrenaline and energy and all that stuff. And I got that quickly. The first time you get back there, whoa . . . it’s pretty intense.
But if you stood backstage with him, prior to a show, as it got close, he’d get into his routine . . . stretching and pacing and harrumphing . . . and all this stuff. I was just watching . . . thinking, man, he’s just getting ready to get on some rough stock, you know? And we’d pull the chute gate . . . and he’s off.
CW: Remember your early shows with Chris?
Mark: Chris never did the bar scene coming up through the ranks. Rodeo was his thing. When we started with Chris, he didn’t have a booking agent, a manager, an assistant . . . or nothin’! He’d write a letter to a fair and say, “Well, I’ve got this country band.”
But it was apparent to me pretty quickly that he had this pretty extraordinary following of people. We did a show at the Salt Lake Palladium, it was packed to the gills with about 1500-1800 people there. You could barely walk. And people were screaming so loud, both the keyboard player and I talked about our ears starting to shut down because there was so much volume coming at us. Coincidentally, Chris later did a Bon Jovi tune, but I thought at the time, “Who is this guy? He’s like the Jon Bon Jovi of rodeo cowboys? What’s goin’ on?” I didn’t know this was there. So it was all there . . . just from singing songs about a lifestyle that people connected with.
CW: Talk about the first time I included the bucking machine in his show.
Mark: When we unleashed the bull the first time in Salt Lake City at the event center, oh my God . . . I could barely stay upright, let alone play. It was during “For Your Love.” It’s a brand new set, the first time it’s ever been seen . . . and nobody knows there’s a bucking machine in there. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen. And the thing rises up out of there, covered up you know? And the crowd’s standing up . . . and you could just feel it all well up . . . .and they don’t know what’s goin’ on. Chris is gone for a second, then he comes back out and he’s got a ridin’ glove and chaps on . . . and he’s crawlin’ up there on top of the risers . . . and this thing’s comin’ up out of there . . . and they’re still not sure what’s goin’ on. Then he gets up on top and he starts pullin’ his hand into the rigging . . . and then they figure it out. And I mean, it was frightening. It was so exciting. I was shaking. I’d forgotten about the crowd. I’m just watching Chris. All the sudden the pyro goes . . . and he nods his head and he’s bucking around. It was unbelievable. There was chaos . . . the crowd was screaming so loud. And that thing had the same impact . . . it stayed the same at most every show for a long, long time. They always loved it. And we carried that same set around for years.
CW: What was it like watching your dad perform his last few shows, knowing how sick he was and how much effort it took to get out there on stage and put his illness out of his mind long enough to put on a good show?
Ned LeDoux: It was a little bit hard to watch. I remember our last show was in Kansas City at the Kemper Arena. I didn’t want to put the thought in my head like “this is the last one . . . or could be.” I just thought, “He needs a little time off. He just needs to take a little break.”
CW: Any one thing you especially miss . . . the example he set, the advice . . . everything?
Ned: The whole thing. Just being there . . . and teaching us what to do and what not to do . . . without telling us. Just being there to kind of look out for us. It’s hard every day to go without him. But we’re all a fairly spiritual family, so we all know he’s still around.
CW: Your dad didn’t say no to fans very often, did he?
Will LeDoux: He never said no to anyone who wanted to talk or wanted an autograph. What’s two seconds of your time for someone who buys your album . . . and to autograph it and say hello? It might make their life . . . they’ll always have that to talk about.
I remember at Springfield, IL, when [younger brother] Beau was down there for the National High School [rodeo] finals. And there were kids coming up for autographs . . . when Dad was back there helping Beau. He’d say, “Let me wait till my son’s done, then I’ll sign whatever you want me to.” And he did.
CW: Do you think your dad—a rodeo cowboy and a rancher—ever could’ve imagined the success he’d achieve with his records . . . the number of people who’d buy them and come to love them?
Will: I think his main focus when he started to make and sell his own tapes was just on bringing in a little extra money. You know, “How can I help support my family?” It wasn’t about “I want to be a big star.” And I don’t think it was ever about that. When he took his time off the road, he loved that. He’s the one person I know who liked to irrigate. Everyone else bitches about irrigating. But he’d be out there—sunrise to sunset . . . moving pipes, leaning on a shovel . . . just watching the water work.
CW: How would you describe your dad to someone who didn’t know him?
Will: That’s a tough one. I’ve never been asked that one. I guess he was a guy that believed in the Golden Rule. And never took anything for granted—ever. Nothing. You name it, he’d find something good in it.
“Boy I never thought I’d have cancer. But we’ll just see what happens. I’ve got every confidence I’ll get through this thing.” That kind of attitude.
In 56 years, the things he did . . . just so many things! I feel like I’m way behind.
For more Chris LeDoux, check out the July 2 issue of Country Weekly.
[Photo by Butch Adams/Capitol Records]