BACK IN THE SADDLE

Chris LeDoux rides again with support from his Garthian angel

Story by David Scarlett - Photo by Morrison/Wulffraat

When singing cowboy Chris LeDoux needed a new liver, superstar Garth Brooks was ready to saddle up and ride to the rescue.

"Garth just out of the blue offered to be a donor," says Chris, with quiet amazement still in his voice at the gift his friend tried to give him.

"And he went through three days of testing before they finally told him he couldn't do it - his liver was the wrong size. I guess he was pretty broken up about it," adds Chris, shaking his head.

"Then, about two or three days later, I was sitting in the hospital and they said, 'We have a donor liver. Are you ready?' "

Chris was more than ready. Without a transplant, he knew he'd die from the disease, primary sclerosing cholangitis. On Oct. 7, he received the liver that saved his life.

"I have no idea where the organ came from," explains Chris. "But it makes you wonder, who was this person? Sometimes I'll think, 'I wish you could see the world through my eyes. You know, I've got part of you in me.' It's really kind of strange and wonderful."

Standing under a shade tree near the porch of his Kaycee, Wyo., ranch house, with three of his four sons playing basketball nearby, Chris talks about his health, his family, his music and the friend he calls his "guardian angel."

"I must have had this health problem for 10 or 12 years and didn't know it," he says. "But, in 1999, when I turned 51, something wasn't quite right. And it progressed to the point that something lifesaving had to happen."

Enter Garth Brooks.

"I didn't even know who Garth was before the worn-out tape of Chris LeDoux line in his 'Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)' in '89," confesses Chris. "But he's always been this guardian-angel kind of guy. Anytime you need anything, he's there."

Chris and his family had been on the verge of bankruptcy with their ranch throughout the '80s. "We had this dark cloud hangin' over our head," he recalls. "But Garth came along with his worn-out tape and things started to change. It created a curiosity - 'Who the hell's Chris LeDoux?' "

Chris had always had his hard-core fans who'd known him since his days as a champion bareback bronc rider who recorded the songs he wrote and sold them out of his car. But with a wife and kids (now five of them) Chris admits that he sometimes thought about giving up the music business during the lean times.

"It's odd," muses Chris. "You go along on that musical trail, and it's like going into a tunnel, hoping that there's light at the other end. You get halfway through and you're thinking, 'Damn, it's really dark.' All you can do is just forge ahead.

"And you might wind up sittin' on a stool in a Holiday Inn playing 'Please Release Me.' Or, you might bust loose and see the light at the other end - and thank God I did."

Did he ever!

With 33 independent and major-label albums under his champion's belt, Chris regularly performs his high-energy, bucking-machine-riding, pyro-exploding shows for sold-out crowds across the country. Still, with all his success, he admits to feeling frustration through the years over a lack of radio play.

"I've sort of learned to live with it," he confesses. "But there were times I felt kind of bitter. 'Well, damn it, can't they play at least one?' But I've gotten to where I feel pretty comfortable - sort of like Jimmy Buffet or The Grateful Dead. They never got much radio airplay, and people love 'em and still buy their records."

During his illness, Chris' fans made it clear that it's not just his music they love.

"There were lots and lots of letters from fans," he recalls. "And I went through all of them, although I was never able to answer most of them."

This summer, Chris is thanking his fans the best way he knows how - with another tour and a new album with noted producer Mac McAnally. A fan of tunes that incorporate country, cowboy and rock 'n' roll music, Chris counts Bruce Springsteen as a favorite writer and Charlie Daniels as a musical hero.

"It's country, but it rocks," he smiles. "You can have a mandolin and a fiddle and a rock 'n' roll guitar at the same time! It's just tremendous."

Suddenly the conversation is interrupted by the sight of Chris' lanky, golden-haired dog giving chase to five antelope who've wandered into the yard.

"Jack! You know better than that!" yells Chris' wife, Peggy, as the rambunctious dog bolts across the grass.

Then, Chris' youngest son, Beau, comes over the hill on a four-wheeler, leading several horses behind him. Beau has just graduated from high school and is following in his dad's footsteps, heading to college on a rodeo scholarship this fall. Chris' oldest son, Clay, helps run the ranch; Ned plays drums in his dad's band; and son Will and daughter Cindy both attend college.

After a trip to check on his irrigation system, Chris smiles, at peace with his recovery and his life on the ranch.

"I'm out irrigating and have a shovel in my hand all day. I started lifting weights after I got home - well, just the bar at first," he chuckles. "I'd lost about 25 pounds of muscle. But I've got the weight back. And I'm at about 90 percent."

Unfortunately, it's not all good news for Chris. There is a major downside to his recovery, but he's trying to make the best of it.

"Had to quit chewin', doggone it!" he laughs. "That was tough. They put you on anti-rejection medicine and tell you that if you don't get off the Copenhagen, you could have problems.

"So," he says with disgust, "I'm chewing this stuff!" He holds up a generic-looking mint product. "It's horrible!" he exclaims. "You put it in there and it just sits." He laughs. "With Copenhagen, you get a buzz!"

But anytime he needs to get the juices flowing, he knows how to do it.

"I get on the bucking machine in the barn, and my boys gradually turn it up," he declares with a grin.

Chris' hell-bent-for-leather onstage persona is in sharp contrast to the devoted husband, father and willing role model he is for his kids and his fans. "I've always pretty much thought I had my priorities straight, with my family being first and music being second," he explains.

"And I've always been the kind of guy who appreciated every day. I feel really fortunate to be able to live this kind of life. There's very few of us who are blessed to do what we love, and I've been blessed at least three times - my rodeo career, the music and my family. It's like a dream.

"So, if there is a next life, I'll deserve to shovel manure for a lifetime," he says with a laugh.

" 'Cause I feel like I've used up all my good cards in this one."

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