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Ask Chris LeDoux about his first ride on a horse, and he's not quite sure he can recall it.

After all, this is a man who's been on a lot of horses in the 55 years since he was born into an Air Force family in Mississippi and later moved to Texas - where it was love at first sight.

"I don't know if I remember the first horse I ever rode," declares Chris with a smile, searching his memory for that life-defining event. "But I remember the smell. There's something I loved about the smell of a horse. And the feel, the hair, the warmth - and their nose. I can remember thinkin', 'Man, this is a great thing, this horse!' "

It's a love affair that continues to this day - and with good reason. His lifelong passion for horses led Chris to several overlapping careers - as a world champion rodeo bareback rider, rancher and, indirectly, recording artist.

With the release of Horsepower, his 9th major-label album, not counting greatest hits compilations, and the 31st of his career (he released the first 22 himself, before Nashville came calling), Chris is edging ever closer to a total album-sales figure of six million copies. It's a milestone that must have looked completely out of reach just three years ago when he was near death before a life-saving liver transplant.

Horsepower, his second CD since the transplant, is dramatically different in tone than After the Storm, the first album after the surgery.

"With After The Storm," recalls Chris, "it was like I didn't really care if I made another album or not. I'd been through so much. Well, when I started selecting songs for the album, I just was more drawn to introspective, even romantic, thankful things. It was more of an emotional kind of album.

"This time around, it's more: I'm feelin' pretty good! My health has been kind of a roller coaster ride for three years. But for the past few months, I've really been feelin' good. It's like everything's sort of levelin' out."

And the songs on his latest CD are definitely true to his cowboy roots.

"This is probably the most cowboy album we've done since we re-did a bunch of my old western songs," he explains with a grin. "Most every one of these - 'Horsepower,' 'One Less Tornado,' 'Rodeo Moon,' 'The Cowboy was Born,' 'Buffalo Grass,' 'The Ride,' 'Blue Bonnet Blues,' 'Rainbows and the Rain' - has something to do with the West."

If the song "Rodeo Moon" sounds familiar, it's probably because it's also on Toby Keith's Unleashed CD. Toby and Chris collaborated on it in a way not typical of Nashville co-writing sessions.

"Toby and I have the same manager," explains Chris. "And he said, 'You and Toby ought to write something together.' So we talked on the phone one day, and I gave him a song title and a couple of old memories ... and he wrote it. It's a great little song about a young rodeo couple - really touching."

This wasn't Chris' first encounter with a well-written Toby Keith tune. "I remember playing with him at Tulsa City Limits," an Oklahoma nightclub where the two stars crossed paths several years ago, recalls Chris. "And at sound check he said, 'I want you to hear a song I wrote.' And he played 'Should've Been a Cowboy.' He said, 'That's my first release.' And I shot back, 'What a great song!' "

Chris definitely knows a great song when he hears one - like "Between the Rainbows and the Rain" on the new CD, a song about the sort of regrets Chris doesn't have.

"The only regrets I might have are just hurtin' some people along the way and sayin' stupid things," he confesses quietly. "Other than that, I don't think I have many regrets. But in this particular song, I guess it's just too much cowboy pride. You can tell that this girl must want him back. But he's too damn proud, the stupid sonofabitch! He had a second chance and passed on it, so he could hang out and play cards some more."

The look in his eyes says it all as Chris stops for a moment to think about second chances. He knows he's been given the ultimate second chance.

And it's obvious this cowboy has every intention of making the most of the ride.

-- David Scarlett