Sunday, 25 May, 2008 8:23 PM
Chris Cagle: A Life Mirrored
in Music (CMA)
by Russ Harrington
Records Nashville recording artist Chris Cagle
2008 CMA Close Up News Service
Even a blizzard couldn't
keep Chris Cagle fans from filing into the Tennessee Miller Coliseum
in Murfreesboro, Tenn., one Friday night in early March. After all,
the timing was right: His new album for Capitol Records Nashville,
My Life's Been a Country Song, had made a spectacular debut
the week before, propelled by 36,600 sales to the top of the Billboard
Top Country Albums chart. And as usual with Cagle, the promise of
a great performance was in the air.
The "Cagle Heads"
in the crowd received two treats - the music, as expected, and prior
to that an exhibition from the artist on his American quarter-horse,
Playboy Master. While providing commentary from his headset microphone,
Cagle delivered a demonstration in the art of reining - fundamentals
he had learned as a boy by spending summers on his grandfather's
farm in Deridder, La.
"I am a country
boy," he admitted, several days after the event. "I tried
to get away from it, but it's who I am. And when you got old enough,
you finally realized that the country is the best secret in the
world. It's a safe haven. It was given to us, perfect in its creation.
It's the one place in the world where you can provide a child with
better character, fortitude and honor, and more discipline, than
the military can. "That's not taking anything away from our
military," he added. "But they take you down and build
you to what they want. The country will break you down and let you
find out who you are."
Whether through horsemanship,
humor or music, Cagle makes the point that he's at home wherever
he can live, breathe, ride or sing with the spirit of country. That's
all he really wanted when he came to Nashville in 1994 and began
the new-artist routine of waiting tables and odd-jobbing while seeking
his career break. He found it six years later, when Virgin Records
released his first album, Play It Loud. Three of its singles
made it to the Top 15 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs
chart, and one, "I Breathe In, I Breathe Out," climbed
After closing its Country
division in 2002,Virgin's roster was absorbed by Capitol Records
Nashville, the imprint on which Cagle released his self-titled album
in 2003 and Anywhere But Here in 2006. On these first three
albums, Cagle solidified his reputation as an expressive singer
with strong writing chops. Yet when he began focusing on what would
become My Life's Been a Country Song, he sensed that he
would approach this one with a more singular focus - not because
he had stopped writing songs but because the songs he was writing
didn't feel right at this point in time.
"My stuff just wasn't
good enough," he explained, with a shrug. "When I started
writing for this album, I was dealing with the stuff I had avoided
dealing with for the last four or five years. And I'm tired of thinking
about it. I'm tired of answering questions about it. I damn sure
don't want to sing about it."
Producer Scott Hendricks,
who had executive-produced Play It Loud, reinforced this
position when he and Cagle started planning their strategy."
I couldn't believe the amount of research Scott did before we'd
recorded note one," Cagle said. "It was ingenious for
him to say, 'One of the most important things for us to look at
is the weak spots in your career. That way, we can make the weak
spots good, the good spots great and the great spots amazing."
They agreed that meant
gathering the best possible material, even if no original songs
would make the final cut. Hendricks reached this conclusion through
a combination of trusting his own ears, tabulating everything from
tempos to keys on Cagle's earlier albums, and studying every comment
he could find, from critics and fans, in magazines and online, that
concerned Cagle's catalog.
"I remember very
clearly dreading that conversation, of having to say, 'Chris, you're
going to have to change a few things,'" Hendricks said. "When
someone is used to a certain method, it's a paradigm shift to get
them to look at that objectively. Raising the bar is not easy. To
his credit, Chris went along with the process - and consequently
I feel like we may have made his best album to date."
Eventually, they whittled
thousands of songs down to a track list. Cagle got there by listening
to each demo blindly, without knowing the identity of the writers
or their publishers, and absorbing the music more as a fan than
an artist, often while driving or concentrating on other activities.
Only after the entire song played would he scribble next to the
title: "P" for "pass," "H" for "hold,"
or a question mark where he might want to check it out again. The
search proved fruitful as well as revealing.
"If you look at
the titles, like 'No Love Songs,' 'What Kind of Gone,' 'If It Isn't
One Thing' and 'Never Ever Gone,' they're tremendously negative,"
Cagle observed. "But then you listen to the songs, you hear
that 'I Don't Want to Live' is 'I don't want to live without you
anymore.' The songs themselves are positive, which seems ironic
to me in many ways."
It also felt appropriate
to Cagle to tackle songs that had complex layers of meaning, even
between their names and their lyrics. Hendricks, sensing that his
artist was in a period of creative transition, encouraged the process
by challenging him to push the envelope in other areas too, which
included working with new personnel, from studio technicians to
musicians. The process extended to tweaking the words of one song.
"My Heart Move On" was called "My Heart Will Move
On" when it came to Cagle as a demo. Its vivid imagery, dramatic
minor-key structure and galloping groove appealed strongly to him,
yet he felt he couldn't cut it without making a small but significant
"In this song, the
end is 'like a storm, like a train, like the seasons when they change
. it goes off to find another home,'" he said, singing the
powerful chorus. But instead of saying 'my heart will move on,'
because I've made these definitive statements in the present tense,
I just thought, 'You know what? It's like I'm willing my heart now
to make this decision to move on. So . my heart move on.'"
"Chris and I talked
about this," said Brett James, who co-wrote the tune with Blair
Daly. "And I'm totally cool with it. It adds something to the
song. It sounds a little bitter to say to an ex-lover, 'My heart
will move on.' So I think Chris made it sound a little more positive.
He had a good reason to do it and I'm glad he did."
The paradox of My
Life's Been a Country Song is that it contains no original
material from Cagle, and yet it reveals much about the artist. The
attention he brings to the studio, and his willingness to examine
himself and take risks in his work, reflect the discipline he has
applied to his life in recent years, from improving his health to
examining and changing his personal priorities.
"I'm turning 40
this year, and I don't have kids yet," he mused. "But
I want to live long enough to have a child and some grandbabies.
Music is a chapter in my life, but it's not the chapter. My livelihood
is performing, but my life is not a performance. I want to live
to be 85. I'm not going to be sitting in a hospital room when I
die, looking at my Gold records on the wall. No, I'm going to be
talking to my kids and my woman. When I leave this world, that's
what I want as my legacy: three or four amazing children, my namesakes.
That's the stuff that matters."
On the Web: www.chriscagle.com
by Russ Harrington
Records Nashville recording artist Chris Cagle
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