Country Star Chris Cagle – The Long, Hard Road To Making It In Nashville
By Derek Halsey
“What’s funny is, every year I’d go, ‘Is this over? Do they even know me? Is it going to happen?’ Nope, give it another year. Every January my New Year’s Eve was spent with myself trying to figure out if I was going to be there the next morning.”
It has been quite an adventure for country music star Chris Cagle. While not yet at the level of a Tim McGraw or a Kenny Chesney in CD sales or popularity, Cagle’s journey from Texas to Nashville to number one on the country charts wasn’t an easy one. Like many others who migrate to Nashville to try and make it in the music business, Cagle had thoughts of giving it up after years of little success. But, he persevered.
He was raised in Texas and floundered around the Lone Star State’s music scene before deciding to move to Music City USA. He worked many different jobs while waiting his turn, from a waiter to construction framing. Finally, after years of playing open stage nights and pitching original songs, he got his break. He was signed to Virgin Records, only to have the label go in a different direction. His contract was then picked up by Capitol Nashville and Cagle went on to release a number one single with “My Love Goes On And On,” put out a couple of gold albums, as well as many top ten records along the way. These days, after going through throat problems and personal hassles that came with his success, he has a new single out called “What Kinda Gone,” and is finishing up his fourth album.
When my phone rings, Cagle is on the other end, driving a borrowed truck on a ranch in Texas that houses his second love – horses.
“Is this Derek?”
Yeah. Is this Chris Cagle?
“Yeah, man, How are you doing, bud?”
“Hey listen, I’m in Texas and I’m riding between ranches so if I lose you, I’ll just call you back. If I don’t lose the signal and go out completely, hang in there and I’ll come back on shortly. Hang on one second, …Hey buddy, (Cagle says, talking to someone out of the window of the truck) I’m good. I’m actually going to go to Wal-mart and get some groceries and go over and see Keith and cook hot dogs and hamburgers tonight. If you want to come by about 8 o’clock, and then we’re going to leave by midnight. I’ll have this truck vacuumed out, new gas, and sitting over there at the ranch. Jim, I thank you for everything. I’m glad we got to come by. Thank you, brother…..(Cagle then speaks directly into the phone again) You there?”
“Man, I’m sorry. That was Jim Babcock and this is his place and he is a very dear friend. I know I’m a customer of his and all of that stuff, but he is dear friend and a good guy and when I come to the ranch he kind of lets me and the band have carte blanche, gives us this big fat King ranch dually to drive and just says, ‘Man, mi casa, su casa.’ I haven’t seen him all day and we’re leaving tonight and I wanted to stop and say hey.”
No problem. Besides, it is good to know somebody with a ranch.
“Yeah. Absolutely. Well, that’s kind of my hope when all of this is over, is to be able to do this. We raise reining and cutting horses out here, and it’s an absolute blast. Jim’s sire, Smart Chic Olena, is going to be, probably, the highest producing sire in the AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association). His colts are phenomenal. He’s got world class blood walking through the veins of these animals. (www.babcockranch.com)”
How long have you been riding horses?
“Since I was a little kid. I’ve never competed or anything. I think that until I got into these two disciplines, I didn’t realize that, man, for most of my life I’ve been ridden around by a horse as opposed to riding one. It’s definitely a great escape. It’s a great thing for me, and is a continuing passion that has been in my life for a long time as well as music. And, what is cool about it is I know, one day, when I do have a family and I do have kids, it would be a good thing to be able to give to my son at ten years old, when he is starting to go through things that ten or eleven year olds go through. Give him a horse and go out and talk to him like a man and say, ‘What the heck is going on, dude? What’s the deal?’ Give him some love and responsibility.
It’s funny, I have a buddy of mine with me in the band and I was showing him some of my animals and each one of them has a certain little thing that I’ve done with them since they were babies, and he laughed at every one of them because of the fact that all these guys want is, we are the predator and they are the prey, and if they can find something that is their predator that they can trust, as an animal they feel extremely secure with that. So, I’ve got a few of them, and they’re my buddies. I’ve got two of them that I have high, lofty goals and hopes for. These two animals, I haven’t even ridden them. That’s the only part that sucks. This year I’m going to start riding them. The only reason I don’t is because they are in training and I want the same consistency in their life with their trainer, and I know that they are very forgiving animals and I probably wouldn’t ruin them, but I wouldn’t want to undo something that the trainer is working on. So, I try to be patient and stay off of them. They know me when I walk up. It’s like, ‘Hey, hey, where ya’ been?’ It’s funny.”
Do you get to see your horses often?
“We were supposed to be going from Nebraska, back to Nashville, back to Texas, and I was like, ‘Man, let’s go to the ranch and see the horses, have a day and a half off and we’ll do some sausage and beer brats and some hamburgers and make some potato salad and pasta salad and things like that.”
What was your music career like in Texas before you moved to Nashville?
“Well, you know, to be honest, it wasn’t really great. My band wasn’t really any good in Texas. I think we were called Texas Heat. But, it was a really good place to go. When you have a band that is that bad, you are not asked to play in a lot of great venues. So, you get a lot of what I call ‘seat time in the saddle.’ You get a lot of time to get your balance and get your legs underneath you and kind of cut your teeth on the game and learn. I used to do a thing where, myself, on Friday night I would go and work the crowd in-between sets. I’m going to go and learn how to work people. I’m going to go find the meanest people who think we suck and try to make them my friends and my fans by the end of the night. Just for fun. It was either that or drink beer, and we were tired of doing that because, man, every night it was 50 bucks and free beer and we’re going to try and get at least a hundred dollars out of the place. You know what I mean?
Then on Saturday night, I’d try and see if I couldn’t get three bookings. So, I would say, ‘Tonight is all about bookings.’ Do a set and make it great and then hit up the owner for a booking for June, even though it’s February. But, who cares. You let them know that you want to work. I would do merchandise. I would walk around and say, ‘Hey, we do birthday parties.’ Just network. That was what the Texas music scene did for me. It let me develop a little bit of….I was going to say confidence, but it wasn’t because I would go onstage petrified. That is the weirdest thing in my life. Once I got my record deal, and I felt like I had a guy like Scott Hendricks and Virgin Records behind me in the very beginning, when I felt that validation, and you look at their resume and you look at them saying, ‘I’m putting my stamp right here,’ that validation changed my life. You don’t walk scared. You know what I mean? That was a pretty big deal for me.”
How did you make the decision to move to Nashville?
“Man, I just realized that anybody that I knew that was doing anything in the music business was gone. They were up in Nashville. Plus, I had a buddy of mine who had been dating this girl, they had been talking about getting married, this and that. I thought everything was good, and then they had a baby. Then, I said to myself, ‘Dude, if there is anything you want to do in your life before that happens, you better go do it.’ That was one of the things that set me into motion. I thought, ‘If you want this music thing and you don’t go now, what if (I started a family).’ What would happen if I didn’t have my record deal at the time? I’d never get a record deal because there is no way in my life that I could stop and say, ‘I’m going to put you on hold, with baby bottles and diapers, and go and do my best to make my dreams come true.’ Once you have a kid, you aren’t living for nothing but that.”
It would be hard to justify trying to make it in music if the times were lean, that’s for sure.
“Yeah, absolutely. So I thought, ‘Man, if it’s going to go, if I’m going to do it, if I’m going to try, go and give it hell and do your thing. And, if you don’t, you’ll figure it out.’ What’s funny is, ever year I’d go, ‘Is this over? Do they even know me? Is it going to happen?’ Nope, give it another year. Every January my New Year’s Eve was spent with myself trying to figure out if I was going to be there the next morning.”
How long did it take to find some success?
“Six years and four days, when I heard my first song on the radio. I was on I-40 west between Charlotte Pike and Old Hickory. In fact, I almost ran off the road. I had to pull over. It was funny, it was so surreal because I was sitting there thinking, ‘I know that song, man.’ About that time I heard the vocals and I went, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s me.’ And, what was weird is that when that three minutes was over, I cried my eyes out, I thanked God, I did the whole nine yards, and I went home and had to go and make all new goals. Because, up to that point in my life it was like, ‘I don’t care, I just want to hear myself on the radio once.’ And then, when it was done, it was like I celebrated that moment and had that emotional time and then I went, ‘What do I do now? That was it.’ So, it was, ‘Ok, what do you want to do with it? Does it matter as much as you thought it would?’ A lot of time you think something is really going to fulfill you and you get it and achieve it and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘That really didn’t do that much for me.’ The night I got my first gold record is the most impressed that I’ve ever been.”
When did you start taking songwriting seriously?
“You know what, I always took writing serious just because it was a good outlet, and I could say things. I kind of learned early on that you have to really, really, really be careful what you put down on paper because you’ve got people that would, you know…my buddy used to take my notes and go read them out loud, whatever, and it’d be embarrassing. I always wrote, but the thing that made it different for me, the thing that made me actually realize that there was a possibility that I could actually write a song was when I was in high school I took piano lessons. In Texas, you play football, and everybody kind of made fun of me about the guitar. So, I’ll just take piano lessons because you only have to carry sheet music and you don’t have to worry about anything. So, at home, I couldn’t play rock and roll. I had to listen to Christian music. I would get tablature for the piano of Elton John or Journey, and then I would play their songs. But, I would make up lyrics from the Bible for their template of music. I would sing Christian lyrics to ‘Faithfully,’ or ‘Don’t Stop Believing.’ (laughing) My Dad was like, ‘This is really good.’ Then, I was seventeen and I’m like, ‘I’m going to hell. I’m lying to my Dad. He thinks these are songs that I wrote.’
What was interesting about that time in my life, when I sat down and started to write a song, or would think about writing, was the fact that I already had an innate or interior template set up for me that I didn’t realize based on the fact that I was hiding the fact that I was singing rock and roll. I had to rebuild the lines to those songs. It wasn’t necessarily easy, because it is not an easy task. But, it made it easier for me to understand the craftsmanship of the songs.
The thing that I love the most about my writing is that I started it from the right place in my heart. I didn’t realize that you could make the kind of money at songwriting that you can make when I started. It was not about that. It was not about, ‘Hey man, you can get rich and stay at home and play guitar? Hell yeah.’ I got something that I need to get out of me, and if I don’t, I can’t afford a shrink. So, maybe this will help, and maybe it will help other people. That was truly where it started from. Of course, when I started out, I really sucked. But, you work and you get better. The first time I wrote, I’m sure I was terrible.”
Did you play the Bluebird Café and the other open mic clubs while in Nashville?
“I did it a couple of times after I got my record deal. When I was in Nashville, man, I didn’t play around a lot. This was my rule – I would go out to a bar or I would go to a place where I was supposed to be seen, and if I saw some people there that I wanted to meet or wanted to write with, I would literally go bump into them. And, I mean physically bump into them. And, after about three or four weeks in a row, like Rich Fagan. I wanted to write with Rich Fagan so bad because he wrote that ‘Be My Baby Tonight’ lyric, and we were at an open mic night, or something like that, and for a couple three or four weeks in a row I’d walk up to him at the bar, him and Tom Oteri, and bump into him. After the third week in a row, he looks over at me and says, ‘Man, don’t I know you?’ I was like, ‘Dude, you and I bumped into each other right here last week.’ So, what I was saying was true, but every time I bumped into him I was like, ‘Hey, oh, excuse me.’
Eventually we started talking and he was like, ‘ So, what do you do?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m a framer.’ He said, ‘Framer? Gosh, everybody says ‘I’m a singer.’’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not paying the bills right now, so I’m not a singer.’ He said, ‘I like that.’ ‘But, I want to be one, I want to write, I want to do the whole nine yards. I’m just out here tonight checking things out, seeing the action.’ ‘You want to get up and sing?’ he said. But for me, if I heard anything up there that I could not beat and steal the show on, I wouldn’t play. But, when I knew I could, that’s when I played. That’s when the buzz started. That is when things started with the ‘Have you heard this Cagle kid?’
The first week that I ever got up and started playing at parties with all my friends who had their songs cut, the first two songs I ever played was ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ and ‘My Love Goes On and On,’ my first single and my first number one. It was really hard for me to hold to that promise to myself of ‘don’t play until you can at least win.’ But, there’s got to be a method for everybody’s madness. What ever works for you, works for you. What ever works for me, works for me. If anyone is going to Nashville for that purpose, all I can say to them is - have some type of plan. Even if the plan is, ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’ll make a plan when I get there.’ Have a plan. If you don’t figure out what you are going to do for yourself, people are going to do it for you. If you don’t figure out what it is you want to do in life, if you can’t figure out what it is that really turns your crank, that you love….if you love the feel of fertilized soil, then you should to be a horticulturalist or a gardener or whatever.”
You spent some time with the legendary songwriter, the late Harlan Howard. When did you get to know him? Was it right before his death??
“No, it was a couple of years before then. I met Harlan in 1996, 95. You talk about a hoot of a character, a human being. When I first met him I was kind of joking with him because we were at a bar called Sammy B’s down on Music Row, and Mr. Howard walks up and says, ‘Excuse me there, son.’ I said, ‘Yes sir?’ He said, ‘You’re in my chair.’ I was like, ‘Well, I don’t see your name on it,’ joking around. He goes, ‘It’s right there, you son of a buck.’ And, it was an actual brass plate that said, ‘This seat reserved for Harlan Howard.’ He was not kidding. I said, ‘Forgive me.’ So, we started talking and he asked, ‘So, what do you do?’ I said, ‘Oh gosh, man, I’m a waiter this week.’ He goes, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘You know, I want to be a songwriter. I want to be a singer, the whole nine yards just like everybody else, but this week I’m waiting tables.’ He said, ‘Okay.’
Well, for some reason, his heart was kind of turned towards me. I have no idea why. He kind of sat there and said, ‘I want you to come down to my office and meet me and I want you to come play for me, and want to see what your stuff is, what you do.’ I went down there and played, and he told me that I wasn’t very good. I asked him how to fix it, and he kind of shared that with me. He gave me a little template for writing, and told me to go and write 40 songs and bring him the last ten. The last song I wrote, he had on hold within a week with Patty Loveless. I was walking sideways. I’m glad I didn’t go and buy a truck or anything, because she never cut it. But just to hear him say, ‘Now this is some material, son. Let’s go get this one demoed. We’ll demo this tomorrow.’ So the next day we’re in the studio, and the next day he’s got it on hold. So, that’s pretty amazing stuff.”
Another notable songwriter in Nashville died not long ago with George McCorkle, an original member of the Marshall Tucker Band. There are definitely some southern rock influences in your music. Did you listen to a lot of southern rock when you were coming up?
Oh yeah, man absolutely. Well, I was about to say that it kind of seems like it has to be, but I guess it doesn’t. But for me, I was more southern rock growing up than I was country, which I think kind of makes me more redneck than cowboy. Which, I don’t mind. You can call me whatever you want to. I’m not redneck and I’m not a true cowboy. But, it is so funny how people perceive us in this rural aspect of life. You know, ‘Bless their hearts, they’re in the dark and they can’t read and they’re all inbred, and whatever.’ I mean, it’s kind of comical. But, I don’t mind it because I feel like we are the ones secretly living a life that if they knew they could live, they’d come and destroy it. So, let them have it. Let them look as far and as long down their nose as they want to.”
What southern rock bands were your favorites?
“38 Special. The Allman Brothers. Charlie Daniels was country, but to me he was southern rock. I thought Johnny Lee had a little bit of a rock feel to him. And then, I liked James Taylor and the Eagles. For some reason when I was younger I liked the harmony things. The harmony (singing) struck me. I think it was because I had so much trouble singing them.”
Did you listen to any bluegrass music when you were younger?
“No. My Papa kind of listened to some. Man, when I was a kid, if it didn’t thump.. and that was just a part of me being a kid. I’ve always been able to appreciate anything good, or anything that was unique. You know, I could appreciate Pearl Jam when they came out and made that revolution. Did I listen to them and buy their records? Absolutely not. But, I can definitely appreciate the sound. It was unique. It was the same way with bluegrass. It’s definitely something that I can easily get into and appreciate. But is it something that I want to listen to every day? No.”
Tell me about your latest album.
“The new record, I am so jacked up about it. I don’t know if you could ever find any place in print anywhere that I have said ‘This is the best record I’ve ever made.’ But, I’m telling you right now, if this is the last record I ever have to make in my life, or the last one that I get to make in my life, I’ll going to be doing fine. This record that we’re recording right now, we go back into the studio on Monday morning and cut the last half of the album, and I am pretty jazzed up about it. We already have a single out from it called ‘What Kinda Gone.’”
Why is this fourth album going to be so good?
“You know….I don’t know. Well, Scott Hendricks is at the helm. He is co-producing it with me. And, he’s different, and it is a good ‘different.’ He approaches things very, very meticulously. For example, Scott knows today what we’re cutting on Monday morning. I don’t even know what key it’s in. I haven’t even listened to it. I’ll listen to it on the way in. Because, if I listen to something over and over again and get married to it, then I’ll have no open mind to anything that’s fixin’ to change. If I listen to a demo over and over and all of a sudden I’m like, ‘I love this song,’ and then I go in and the guys want to play it different, I’m like, ‘Hell no.’ The thing is, I’d never know what I could be missing. I could be missing a great change or a great addition to the song, but I’m so closed off to it. That’s why I would love to just go in and play the songs acoustically. Then, let them sit and pick it out and start playing and it would all fall into place.
“The one thing that I can say that we went after and focused on is that Scott and I were talking, and Scott sat me down and said, ‘I believe that you need to change some things in your career. What I did was I took the time to go through the critical statements that people made about your past records, and about your career, and I want to find the things that are wrong with your career so we can make the things that are wrong better, and leave the stuff that is going great alone.’ I said, ‘That makes pretty good sense.’ Everything that was said negative was about the quality of the material. All of it was about, ‘We want better songs. We want better songs.’ I’m telling you right now, we have some kickass songs on this album. We have stuff that is the most country thing I’ve ever done, we have stuff like ‘A Beautiful Day’ type of pop a little bit, we have a little bit of flat old what you would expect when you hear Chris Cagle’s classic rock kind of thing. Every single part of this thing is covered. It is really well written material.”
Chris, what is your approach to performing live in front of a crowd??
“Man, we get onstage and we have fun. We don’t take for granted the fact that we get to be there, and we get to make a little money and go home. That’s the thing. It’s not something where we go, ‘Hey, we got another show tonight.’ It’s an actual treat for us to get to be able to get on stage and do our thing. That is something that I cherish about my guys. My guys, they don’t take it for granted. They really, really enjoy being able to do it.”
Do you let the band cut loose every once on a while?
“Oh yeah. I give them their own five or ten minutes in the show. I see so many people in this world walk up onstage and take all the credit. Man, with all of these people around me, I cannot be willing to take any of this credit unless I’m willing to give it to everybody that it is due. These guys get up just like I do, if they’re sick or they feel bad or whatever, whatever the deal is, they still have to walk out and put on a smile and kick it in the tail because that is what they are getting paid to do. They do it and they don’t complain, and they are like, ‘I’m with you,’ and it shows. It’s a great thing. It’s a joy to be associated with them.”
What do you want the crowd coming away with when they see you live?
“I want them to know that we appreciate them. When we walk away from a show I want people to know, ‘Man, that dude has a ball, and I was a part of that thing, and one of the reasons that he did.’ I want them to be entertained. I want them to say, ‘Man, I want to see that guy again.’ I think that everybody tries to over-think this business. I am the person that comes to your town to take you to another place away from your town. It’s not that you want to escape, or that your town is not the place to live. It’s just that everybody wants to have that one night out of three months that you can let your hair down and not have to worry about it. That your safe, and you know in the process that you’re going to have a good time and listen to some music. And, if you have never heard of me, maybe you’ll become a fan. Who knows. That is my heartbeat in it.
“I make music, I do what I love, because it was something that was in me, and it was the one thing I knew I’d do for nothing if they’d let me. I loved it that much, and got lucky, and was in the right place at the right time, and some guy said, ‘Hey man, I’m going to pull a million dollar trigger.’ You know, when he said that, I wanted to hold my breath because I didn’t want to talk my way out of it. Just as much as I appreciate where I’m at right now, I appreciate the pain I’ve been through in the last two and half, three years of my life. The last two and a half years of my life have been crap. Lawsuit, baby wasn’t mine, the whole nine yards. I’m all good with it. In fact, the new album is called, ‘It’s Good To Be Back.’ But, it is not about being back on the radio, it’s not about being back in the studio, it’s not about being back on the road. It’s about being Chris again. I was beat up. I didn’t care. I was wounded. And you know what, I’m back. Just me. Take it or leave it. Redneck, this is it. Here I am. If you don’t like it, that’s cool. I can move over and there is somebody else that you probably like. But, there is going to be some of them that do like me. That’s the stuff that I know, and that is the stuff that I absolutely do not take for granted and I cherish it, and I do not take it for granted.”
You have been having some voice and throat problems over the last couple of years. How is your voice these days??
“It’s good. I’m a little beat up right now because I’ve been using it too much. I’m fine. I still have the little condition that I had, but it is just one of those things. You sing around it and do what you do.”
Here you are, having struggled to make it. Then once you do, you get a whole other set of problems. What has that been like for you?
"The famous side of things, man, that’s all smoke and mirrors. That’s going to go away. I’d rather have, than have a career as big as Kenny Chesney’s, I would rather have a career as big as Neal McCoy and people think, ‘You know what, that is the best dude I’ve ever met in my life.’ I’d rather have the other. Come on, how much money can you make? I probably wouldn’t complain about it. But, is that it? Is that the deal? Or, do we stop and lets go do something with this money? I’ve got some questions for myself about when we get there. We’ll see what happens.”