Author: Leon Blair
Do you want to talk about an underground success? I’m not talking about Chris Stapleton or Sturgill Simpson or really anyone from this modern era. I’m talking about another time and another place, a time when there was no Internet for the general public and you really had to dig deep to find something that resonated with your soul (although unlike now, country radio was awesome during this time).
I’m talking about none other than Chris LeDoux, a man who went from rodeo champion to musician, selling over 250,000 copies of his albums in 1982 without the help of radio or really marketing at all. He represented the spirit of the independent artist, refusing to sign with record labels and stay independent until Garth Brooks mentioned him in “Much Too Young” (to which he really had no choice but to sign, he was huge!)
And of course, like any true independent artist, his radio success never really amounted to much, having only one top ten to his name due to it being a duet with Garth. Does any of this sound familiar today? Of course it does, because just like back then, Chris didn’t need radio to amass a large and loyal fanbase or become even more recognizable than some 90’s country stars back in their day.
However, this whole piece isn’t about just Chris. You see, a new day is dawning in country music. Yes, there’s the shift in sound and quality (in my opinion) that’s occurring, but I’m talking about another new day, one where someone steps up to continue Chris’ legacy. Who better to do that than Chris’ son, Ned LeDoux?
Now, I realize I’m already five paragraphs into this thing, but I don’t want the spotlight to JUST be on Chris, for you see, after listening to Ned’s debut EP, ‘Forever A Cowboy’, I’m leaving more impressed than I am skeptical. Children of country artists don’t always impress me as much, however, there’s a lot to like on Ned’s EP. You see, on this EP, Ned proves that he’s doing much more than simply “taking over” for his father. He’s carving his own path in music, and while this is simply an introduction into all of that, the results we could see down the road could be damn great.
Right away, you get that sort of Western feel to this album that I feel is sort of lost amongst a lot of country artists today. It’s reflected in Ned’s rougher vocals (and to make one last mention of Chris LeDoux, well one of the last, he sounds a lot like his father), but it’s also reflected in a lot of the instrumentation as well with some thicker, heavier guitar work as well as just the feeling. Yes, the feeling. I’m not some expert at music, and I hate to resort to metaphors, but you really do just feel that sort of darker, lonesome Western feel, particularly on the latter tracks. The beginning is a little more smooth sure, but that’s not to say polished. It’s just that the themes of those songs match their brighter instrumentation.
There’s a warmness to the opener, “We Ain’t Got It All”, reflected in the acoustics and banjo that leads to some really great riffs. Even if the themes of songs such as “Brother Highway” or “Forever A Cowboy” are more anthemic in nature, they also back it up with some really great riffs, especially “Brother Highway” with its explosive ending. Don’t even get me started on the coldness that encompasses “Johnson County War” either (a nice cover of one of his father’s songs by the way). There’s more of a bluesier touch to this one compared to the original that really helps to accentuate the overall darkness and bite of the story. I’ll say here that even though the production is doing a lot for the mood of these songs, Ned himself as a vocalist is also a highlight on these tracks, especially when there’s a lot of sincerity here.
Now, for as much as I’ve praised this EP, it isn’t without its faults. You see, while I enjoy the overall sound of this album a lot, I’m not sure the writing holds up as well. I hear a song such as “Johnson County War” and I immediately get swept up in the tale of these outlaws who steal from this town and how the protagonists end up making sure justice is served. There’s so many rich details within the song that it paints a picture in the listener’s mind. I’m not sure we get that at the beginning. The sentiment of “We Ain’t Got It All” is appreciated sure, but it’s operating too much on the “checklist” basis instead of telling a story about it’s main point of being grateful for all they have. On “Brother Highway”, we hear all about how Ned and the highway have been through so much together, but we never really get a glimpse into what they’ve actually been through. We only hear that they’ve done it. Again, some more details could have fleshed out a nice story. “Forever A Cowboy” sort of operates in the same fashion, however here, the sort of “echo” effect that’s reflected in the vocal work and production really help to ground in that anthemic feel I mentioned earlier and really come together as a great song.
Now, again, those are merely gripes, as there’s enough done in the instrumentation to make up for the weaker writing. Besides, it’s merely an observation. With that being said, there’s one song on here that impacted me even more than the cover here, and that’s undoubtedly “The Hawk”. Damn it, if I could take back my song of the year candidates list and just put one more there, it would be this song. It’s the type of poignant, beautiful song that absolutely floors you the first time you hear it, especially when it’s coming from someplace this raw and real. I’m reminded a lot of the symbolism from Lori McKenna’s “The Bird and the Rifle”, and how the bird represents a woman who needs to be free. Here, that bird is a hawk, and that hawk is none other than Ned’s dad, Chris who appeared out of nowhere on the ranch shortly after his death. It’s even more poignant that Ned uses that symbolism for inspiration, answering the call from his father. How ironic that hawks represent a call for leadership, as that’s what Ned has done here.
I will also say that to be fair, this is an EP. It serves as a glimpse into the type of artist Ned LeDoux wants to be, and so while this isn’t quite excellent, this isn’t the place to judge Ned on that, as this is a damn great introduction. Many will look at this EP as “that thing that Chris LeDoux’s son did”, however I’m willing to argue that Ned’s got it in him to carve his own distinctive path in music, and not only step up to the call of musicianship, but also “take the bull by the horns” if you will.
Best Songs: “The Hawk”, “Johnson County War”, “Forever A Cowboy”
Weakest Song: “We Ain’t Got It All”