Paying a Visit, and Paying Respects to Chris LeDoux

What true country fans know inherently that others will never fully understand is that it’s about way much more than just music. Country music is a living history told in song that unfolds like a tapestry, encapsulating the rural, agrarian, Western, and blue collar experience in America. It’s also a way of life. That is why when some try to make country music conform to their own visions of what it should be, or attempt to undermine it for ulterior purposes, true country fans find it so offensive. They’re trying to take something away that’s very fundamental to their sense of self, and their world view.

Country music is deeply ingrained in American culture, and in the very fiber of its fans. Sometimes this is obfuscated from us as we go about our daily lives, and other times this truth is self-evident as little signifiers come poking out of the surface.

For example, while recently covering the Under The Big Sky Festival in the northwest portion of Montana, I happened upon a little cafe called the Outlaw Diner in the small town of Columbia Falls. Looking for a proper breakfast place, here was an Outlaw country-themed diner 1,500 miles from Austin, and 2,000 miles from Nashville, with Outlaw country vinyl records lining the walls, and Willie and Waylon playing in the background.

If it wasn’t for their scrambled eggs tasting weird and looking like they were diced in a Cuisinart, and the Belgian waffle being about as bland as a Cole Swindell song (apparently, order the burger at this joint), perhaps this feature would be on the Outlaw Diner of Columbia Falls, Montana, and not Chris LeDoux. For the record, if you’re ever in Columbia Falls, get your breakfast at The Night Owl. Good folks.

But taking my sweet time on the long trek back to Texas from Montana (yes, I’ll get to your emails eventually) I happened to travel right through Kaycee, Wyoming. Truly off the beaten path unless you happen to be trekking on I-25 between nowhere and nowhere—and with a population of less than 300—Kaycee, Wyoming is not exactly a prime destination spot … unless you’re a Chris LeDoux fan.

Taking a trip through Big Sky country in the Western United States, Chris LeDoux is a must for your soundtrack, so the country music and rodeo legend was already was top-of-mind trekking through the region. Also this month Capitol Nashville released a LeDoux retrospective called Wyoming Cowboy – A Collection on vinyl to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of his first record Songs of Rodeo Life. It includes a lot of Chris LeDoux classics and a couple of deep cuts.

On July 23rd when Rolling Stone Country covered the new collection, they coined Chris LeDoux “The Bon Jovi of the Cowboys.” Yes, much of Chris LeDoux’s country material had a rock and roll edge, and he did collaborate with Bon Jovi on a one-off song. And yes, the nickname was instigated somewhat by one on LeDoux’s long-time band members. But the idea that the legacy of LeDoux could be relegated needing to be paired with Bon Jovi was beyond offensive, and inspired the following tweet from yours truly.

“Never, and I mean NEVER EVER refer to the amazing Chris LeDoux as ‘The Bon Jovi of the Cowboys.’ E.V.E.R. Even if you need a mainstream cultural reference for your bourgeois, non-country hipster readership. LeDoux’s one-off collaboration on one song with Bon Jovi notwithstanding.”

So when mere moments later I saw a small sign on the highway saying, “Chris LeDoux Memorial Park, this exit.” I had to take the side tour.

Chris LeDoux was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, but attended high school in Cheyenne. He lived in other parts of the country during his Hall of Fame rodeo career too, but when he retired, he retired to Kaycee, Wyoming on a ranch, and this is where he originally launched his now legendary country music songwriting and performing career from.

Pulling into Kaycee, it truly is a tiny, forgotten corner of the earth. The entirety of Johnson County, Wyoming has less than 9,000 people. Kaycee is comprised of a couple of locally-owned restaurants, a tiny church, a store for tack and groceries, and everything looks like it hasn’t been updated or maintained since the 80’s at best. And then right there in the center of town, completely taking you off guard is this immaculately cared-for memorial park to Chris LeDoux, bursting with vibrancy and color, and of course, a towering 12 1/2-foot sculpture of LeDoux himself riding bareback affectionately named “Good Ride Cowboy.”

The unbelievable detail in not just the statue, but every single element of this unexpected country music oasis in an otherwise forgotten and pretty desolate place is quite astounding. The gates opening to the park read out, “Chris LeDoux, World Champion Bareback Rider.” The two tiers of the rock pedestal where the statue sits are shaped like guitars, with fresh flowers planted between them. Then the impressive bronze statue itself made by D. Michael Thomas rests on another guitar fashioned to be a Guild, with “Beneath These…” on one side, and “…Western Skies” on the other of the body.

Even the benches make mention to Chris LeDoux, and the trees, bushes, and grass are thoroughly cared-for almost like a Japanese peace garden. I’ve been to many, many memorials to country legends before, and seen bronze renditions of country artists in parks and other places. Some are hits, many are misses. Willie Nelson is barely recognizable in his bronze statue in downtown Austin. The memorial and grave of Hank Williams in Montgomery will take your breath away, but the Astroturf somewhat cheapens the experience. And don’t get me started about the gaudy headstone placed for George Jones, while the Waylon Jennings grave is just a bit too understated.

But everything here was so tastefully done, and such attention to detail had been paid, you could get weepy. In a place that time has mostly forgotten, here was a well-loved, boldly-imagined, and meticulously maintained memorial to what is tantamount to a local patron saint, with people even leaving cans of Copenhagen at the foot of the statue like sacraments, commemorating one of LeDoux’s most cherished songs.

Even as you first walk in, there’s two boot prints in the textured concrete that were put there by LeDoux’s boots. I stopped by during the daytime, but you could tell by walking around the park that at night it was lit up brilliantly, with highlights on the tress and grounds, and of course a spotlight on the LeDoux statue itself. I couldn’t spare waiting multiple hours until dusk to see it myself, but it gives me an excuse to return some day, and see the spectacle at night.

It all just put in perspective how important all this country music stuff is: all the bellyaching about the direction of the music, making sure the legends are honored, making sure the roots are preserved. To see the passion the people of the tiny, economically-depressed town of Kaycee, Wyoming put into their little memorial park to Chris LeDoux that otherwise might be the middle of nowhere shows just how much it means to people. Because this wasn’t the middle of nowhere. For the legacy of Chris LeDoux, it’s the center of the Universe.

Chris LeDoux was a true American hero, of country music, and of the rodeo. And the people here continue to remember and honor him now over 15 years after his death, because he embodies their grit, their determination. He gives them a sense of meaning and purpose: a compass of who they are.

And let’s not forget how important Chis LeDoux was as a completely independent artist for the vast majority of his career, releasing a dozen-plus albums, selling millions of copies, and selling out rodeo arenas before he had no other choice but to work with a major label after Garth Brooks helped blow him up even bigger to help keep it all organized. Chris LeDoux was one of the precursors to the country music revolution we are currently witnessing with a lot of today’s artists such as Cody Jinks, Sturgill Simpson, and so many others.

When Chris LeDoux died on March 9th, 2005 at the age of 56 due to bile duct Cancer, he was cremated and his ashes scattered. That leaves the Chris LeDoux Memorial Park in Kaycee, Wyoming as the one place a fan can stop by to pay their respects.

After lingering in the park for a while and soaking it all in, I continued on my way back down the highway, eventually making my way to Cheyenne. Lo and behold, it happened to be the very first day of the world-famous Cheyenne Frontier Days, which is the most historic confluence of country music and cowboy culture in existence. Traffic was backed up onto the highway through Cheyenne due to the festivities, the midway rides were spinning on the horizon, and there was a buzz in the air.

Playing that night to open the 125th annual Frontier Days was Garth Brooks, who once said, “I stole my whole act from Chris [LeDoux].” Opening for Garth that night was Chris LeDoux’s son, Ned. Also, as part of the opening festivities, a direct replica of the “Good Ride Cowboy” statue of Chris LeDoux that resides in Kaycee’s Memorial Park was unveiled on the Frontier Days grounds, and this year’s season was specifically dedicated to LeDoux. Truly, some kind of kismet was in the air.

“I can’t tell you how much I applaud you for making him the centerpiece of Cheyenne Frontier Days,” Garth Brooks said. “He is the face of Cheyenne Frontier Days. He is also the face of what a good human being is, and what a great cowboy is.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t have tickets to get into the concert proper, and there wasn’t enough time to try and flash my Saving Country Music credentials and try to weasel my way in before the show commenced. But driving that stretch of highway through Wyoming from Kaycee to Cheyenne, and seeing the legacy of Chris LeDoux so alive and pulsating really put everything into perspective.

This isn’t just country music. This is us, our lives, our heroes, and our world set to song. And Chris LeDoux is just the kind of hero we need more of these days.

Can you see Chris LeDoux’s boot prints?
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