Singer/songwriter was Western music pioneer.

Singer/songwriter Chris LeDoux, who became a cult favorite on the rodeo circuit during the 1970s, died today (March 9) in a Casper, Wy., hospital after a lengthy illness. He was 56.

Born in Biloxi, Miss., and raised near Austin, Texas, Le Doux became enamored of rodeo as a teenager, and was an award-winning bareback rider by the time he graduated from high school. He followed the college rodeo circuit and joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. in 1970. Six years later, Le Doux won the World Championship Bareback buckle, but not before launching his career as a writer and performer of cowboy songs. In that role, Le Doux became country music's standard-bearer for songs of the American west, a category that had largely been ignored by mainstream country labels and talent scouts since the early '60s.

After being repeatedly turned down by Nashville publishers and labels, Le Doux formed Lucky Man Records and publishing venture American Cowboy Songs with his parents, Al and Bonnie LeDoux. His first sessions were recorded in the basement of a house in Sheridan, Wy.

Although Le Doux retired from rodeo riding in 1980, his music career and popularity with fans escalated. By some estimates, Le Doux has sold 14 million albums, many at rodeos and through mail order. He recorded and released 22 albums on Lucky Man.

His influence on a generation of young country singers became evident in 1989, when Garth Brooks name-checked Le Doux in his debut single, "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)." In 1990, Le Doux signed to Capitol, which reissued all of his previous catalog.

He placed 25 singles on Hot Country Singles & Tracks, most notably "Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy" (featuring Brooks), which peaked at No. 7 in September 1992. He also placed 14 titles on Top Country Albums. He underwent a liver transplant in October 2000 and radiation therapy for cancer starting last November.

Le Doux is survived by his mother, wife Peggy, five children, a brother and a sister.