CHEYENNE – Ned LeDoux has been to Cheyenne Frontier Days at least two dozen times, but this year will be different. This year, the 125th anniversary of the “Daddy of ‘em All” is dedicated to his dad, the late Chris LeDoux, and he’ll be opening Frontier Nights on Friday in his memory.

Many of Ned’s earliest memories of CFD are from the early ’80s, when he’d go with his dad to sell cassettes and merchandise outside the midway. Back then, Chris was releasing all his music on a record label he created with his own dad, dubbed American Cowboy Songs. It wasn’t until Garth Brooks referenced him in the 1989 song “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” that Chris was signed to Liberty Records.

During Ned’s early CFD memories, Chris was already well known for his rodeo accomplishments – he was crowned the World Champion Bareback Rider in 1976, just a year before Ned was born – but his music career was just taking off, and his son took notice.

“Most of my siblings, they all play something, but I got a set of drums when I was just a kid, and I never looked back,” Ned said over the phone from his home in Kansas. “I knew music was gonna be my calling.”

Shortly after Chris died from bile duct cancer at the age of 56, Ned was moved to act on his love of music. And when Dustin Evans of South Dakota’s Dustin Evans & Good Times band called one day, asking him to join the group as a drummer, it felt like a sign.

After one of his first gigs with the band, Ned was hanging out in the hotel with Evans, who was strumming along on his acoustic guitar. Suddenly, he handed the instrument to Ned and encouraged him to play one of his dad’s songs.

“I don’t know how to sing or play guitar,” Ned recalled responding. “But there’s just something about it, kind of like a curiosity thing. … I thought it’d be kind of cool to just be able to learn a handful of songs on the guitar and sing to where if I’m sitting around a cheap motel room with some buddies or sitting around a campfire, I could join in.”

Learning a couple songs turned into a whole bunch of songs, and eventually one thing led to another and Ned was playing solo gigs as an opener for local groups at dive bars.

In many ways, those experiences led him to this fateful performance on the first evening of Frontier Nights, when Ned will open for his dad’s longtime friend, Garth Brooks.

Chris LeDoux and Brooks go way back to Brooks’ aforementioned hit that mentioned him – “The worn out tape of Chris LeDoux, lonely women and bad booze / Seem to be the only friends I’ve left at all.” Chris’ most famous song by far was his duet with Brooks, “Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy,” which charted at No. 7 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Chris opened for his friend many times, but the pair’s last big concert together was Frontier Nights 1996 for the 100th anniversary of CFD. In a 2020 video announcing him as a headliner for this year, Brooks recalled that concert with “the man” as one of his favorite CFD memories.

Ned has also played with Brooks previously, once in Nashville and then again in Indianapolis for the 2018 National FFA Convention, but he’s particularly excited for this performance.

“There were a lot of other farm and ranch kids out there [at FFA], so we were right at home with that, but it was just awesome to share the stage with Garth,” Ned said. “He’s just always been a good friend of the LeDouxs and very supportive, and we always look forward to it any time we get to catch one of the shows – he’s just a great guy.”

CFD CEO Tom Hirsig said the idea to honor Chris at this year’s event was thrown out several years ago when they started planning for the 125th, so he doesn’t remember exactly who thought of it, but it was always an obvious “yes.”

“He’s a Wyoming guy who went to high school in Cheyenne, and the two cornerstones of CFD are rodeo and night shows – he rose to the top of both fields,” Hirsig said. “Rising to the top of one is hard enough, but two in one lifetime, that’s incredible.”

Hirsig crossed paths with Chris LeDoux several times back in the day, but by the time he was rodeoing, Chris was spending more of his time on music. Hirsig has vivid memories of the now-icon selling eight-track tapes out of his van at Frontier Park.

“It was like, ‘This is just a guy trying to make it,’ and nobody knew he was going to be as legendary as he was,” Hirsig said. “He was just one of the guys.”

He’s excited for fans to honor Chris’ memory by hearing Ned perform, and he hopes people also take the time to view the new bronze Chris LeDoux statue installed outside Frontier Park along Interstate 25.

As for Ned, he’s excited to gather his entire family in one place – which doesn’t happen often – to recognize the man who left a huge mark on not only his loved ones, but the rodeo and country music industries.

And with every note he plays, Ned will remember the greatest lesson his dad ever taught him.

“Give it everything you got,” he said. “Play every show like it’s your last.”

Niki Kottmann is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s features editor. She can be reached at nkottmann@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3135. Follow her on Twitter at @niki_mariee.

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