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Entertainment News

Sunday, 25 May, 2008 8:23 PM

Chris Cagle: A Life Mirrored in Music (CMA)

Photo by Russ Harrington

Capitol Records Nashville recording artist Chris Cagle

By Bob Doerschuk
© 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 to No.1.

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 change.

"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

 

Photo by Russ Harrington

Capitol Records Nashville recording artist Chris Cagle

 

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