Singer-songwriter Ned LeDoux has a surefire trick for trying to get his baby daughter to calm down when she’s crying: just cue up some cowboy music and wait for tales of the range to work their magic.
“Anytime she’s throwing a fit, I’ll just turn on some Don Edwards,” he says. “She loves Don Edwards’ voice.”
It should probably come as no surprise that any LeDoux progeny would have an innate appreciation for all things cowboy-related. As a son of rodeo and country music hero Chris LeDoux, who died in 2005, Ned is well acquainted with this particular lifestyle. LeDoux proudly carries these traditions forward on his new LP Sagebrush, mixing cowboy romanticism with tales of gritty characters and vagabond living in his own conversational style.
LeDoux’s journey to center stage was a gradual one that has been playing out over the last 20 years. As a young musician toiling in bands around his native Wyoming, he was eventually drafted to serve as the drummer in his father’s group Western Underground, with whom he continued touring after the senior LeDoux’s death. He also picked up the guitar and started learning some of his dad’s concert staples.
“It was a slow and steady transition,” he says. “When I was playing drums, there was always a guitar hanging on a wall or sitting in a corner and it was just a much easier instrument to pick up and play.”
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In 2015, LeDoux started writing songs with family friend, CMA Musician of the Year and guitarist Mac McAnally, who wound up serving as the producer on Sagebrush. “It’s been almost a two-year in progress deal,” says LeDoux. “Just dating back to that first song I ever wrote with Mac that stemmed from an idea Dad had. With every song on this record I’ve just dissected it.”
LeDoux makes his mission statement clear with “Forever a Cowboy,” which he co-wrote with McAnally incorporating some ideas that Chris LeDoux had previously jotted down. A steady waltz that never gets ahead of itself, the tune lionizes a figure whose sole bad habit is “he don’t know when to quit.” It’s a theme LeDoux continues on the jangling rocker “Cowboy Life” and the defiant, windswept “Some People Do,” expanding his focus to talk about the type of personality that can actually thrive in this sometimes-unforgiving universe. Not exactly country radio fodder in the present moment, but that was never really the point for LeDoux, anyway.
“Even though it’s my first record, I’m not really writing anything for radio,” he says. “It’s just, there’s a lot of people out there that they just want to hear stuff they can relate to: songs about being a cowboy, working on a ranch, living in the middle of nowhere and even all the traveling, like with ‘Brother Highway.'”
LeDoux sings in an easygoing manner that suits these narratives of wide-open spaces, suggesting a seasoned expert showing a few greenhorns the ropes. He never sounds like he’s straining to reach the biggest notes – he’s more content to let the songs do the talking, meaning that his stories aren’t overshadowed by vocal acrobatics. When he dispenses life advice about kindness and common sense in McAnally’s “Better Part of Living,” it doesn’t come off hokey or didactic – it’s like an uncle offering a little bit of wisdom.
“I grew up around great storytellers,” he says. “My dad was a great storyteller. My granddad was a great storyteller and the music they all listened to – my dad was a huge Charlie Daniels fan, he can tell a great story as well. I just try to incorporate that into a song.”
LeDoux’s live performances have often incorporated a handful of his dad’s beloved songs, and Sagebrush continues that trend with a cover of the cattle-rustling saga “Johnson County War” and Jake Brooks’ “This Cowboy’s Hat,” which is the closest thing to a signature Chris LeDoux number. The tale of conflict and resolution appears as a duet with Chase Rice (who also included it on his new album Lambs & Lions), but opens with Chris LeDoux’s sampled dialog from the original recording: “There’s always been groups of people that never could see eye to eye. And I always thought if they ever had a chance to sit down and talk face to face, they might realize they got a lot in common.”
“It’s not just about a biker and a cowboy – it goes a lot deeper than that,” says LeDoux. “It’s a perfect song with the world we’re living in today. It’s like we’re walking on eggshells. We live in this beautiful country and it’s full of all kinds of different cultures and opinions and every now and then we all bump heads, but [it’s] just like Dad said.”
It’s a simple message of tolerance and searching for understanding that isn’t cloaked in high-minded graduate school theory – just people, respecting one another’s differences and not resorting to name-calling or violence.
“I’ve always just been proud of who I am and where I came from, and yeah, you don’t want anybody to trespass on things you believe in, but on the other hand you gotta think where they came from as well and just respect where everybody’s background is,” says LeDoux. “Because hell, I love everybody.”
LeDoux may simply be upholding lessons he learned from his dad, but that seems like a message worth sharing with the world. If a little cowboy wisdom and style can soothe a crying infant, maybe it can work on full-grown adults as well.