For 16 years, guitarist Mark Sissel worked side-by-side with a man whose stature was legendary not just in one field, but two: country star and rodeo champion Chris LeDoux. Sadly, LeDoux passed away in 2005 at the height of his career. From their days of playing bars and rodeos to sharing some of the biggest stages in the world with some of the biggest stars in the world, Sissel’s guitar playing with LeDoux’s Western Underground helped fuel LeDoux’s powerful performances, as his rode a mechanical bucking bull to stardom in his “Rock ‘n’ Roll Rodeo.”
These days Sissel still takes Western Underground on the road with LeDoux’s son Ned on drums, and singer Dustin Evans and Sissel handling most of the vocals. The set list includes old LeDoux favorites, as well as some tunes from Western Underground’s 2008 “Unbridled” CD. For his day job, Sissel works for TKO Artist Management, serving as Toby Keith’s production coordinator and handling production logistics for many of the acts on Keith’s Show Dog label. And in his spare time, Sissel, an Academy of Country Music Guitarist of the Year nominee in 2001, can be seen holding down the tour guitar spot with his friends in Trailer Choir.
Freelance writer Rick Moore caught up with Sissel at his West Nashville condo for a glass of red wine and a few questions.
Q: Mark, where’s your home town?
A: Tipton, Iowa, a small farming town. That’s where I started playing music for money when I was about 14. It’s pretty much all I’ve ever done.
Q: How did you hook up with Chris?
A: I was based in Salt Lake City in the late 1980s and heard that Chris was looking for band members. Chris wasn’t real well-known outside of rodeo circles then, and I started out playing guitar and some fiddle with him. Next thing I knew, I was leading the band and working as the road manager and getting gold and platinum albums with the Capitol logo on them. It was unbelievable for a guy who’d been making $8,000 in a good year.
Q: How did the record deal for Chris come about?
A: Chris and his dad had been pursuing a deal for years, and Chris had made 22 records out of his own pocket for his rodeo fan base and had sold about $4,000,000 worth of them. So I guess they thought he had some potential (laughs). Most people have no idea that Chris was really one of the first guys to do that “boutique label” thing on his own American Cowboy Songs label. He also had a great friend in Garth Brooks, and I think Garth’s support had quite a bit to do with Jimmy Bowen buying Chris’s catalog for Liberty, which was owned by Capitol, and all of us ending up in Nashville.
Q: What are a couple great memories you have of those days with Chris?
A: Well, pretty much everything I did with Chris is a great memory. But one, I guess, was one night in California, when we were supposed to open for Garth. Garth was pretty new – I think “Too Young to Feel This Damn Old” was on the charts – and he was nervous, and wouldn’t do the show unless Chris headlined it! Looking back, it was really a great honor. And maybe the high point of my career, with Chris hopefully there in spirit, was playing guitar on the 2007 CMA Awards with Garth in Madison Square Garden, doing “Good Ride Cowboy” in tribute to Chris. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to top that one.
Q: I know you logged many thousands of miles playing shows, both before you met Chris and certainly afterwards. Any other shows stand out for you that may not have been exactly what you expected?
A: It’s kind of a blur after over 30 years as a road musician. But it was pretty amazing to have people like Peter, Paul and Mary and Kansas opening for us when I played with Chris. It was also a little weird maybe. To think that a guy from the middle of the Corn State has people like that opening a show for him…it gives one pause for sure.
Q: What kinds of guitars are you playing these days?
A: I’ve used a lot of guitars and had some great endorsements over the years, but right now with Trailer Choir I’m using a red Strat I really like.
Q: Any advice for anyone just coming to town for a music biz career?
A: Don’t give up, ever. But be sure to enjoy your life no matter what you’re doing, whether you’re waiting tables or working in a warehouse. The odds will be more stacked against you than at any time in history, so just be yourself and be happy. Make as many friends here as you can, real friendships, not fake ones. Play your butt off and enjoy life.
Q: You seem to really stress the personal aspect of life as much, or more, than the musical. What is your greatest accomplishment personally?
A: Well, my great kids, Sara and Cooper. And after that, just having made a living as a musician. I’m just a regular guy who got a break and was smart enough to work hard and not take it for granted. I’m really blessed to have done what I’ve done with the great artists I’ve done it with, and it’s far from over. Oh, and I got to meet Roy Rogers. That was too cool.
Story by Rick Moore