The allure of stardom is pretty easy to explain: Adoring fans, bottomless bank accounts, widespread name recognition, the ability to cross any velvet rope and push any agenda you want…to the average powerless person, it sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Sure, there are costs involved—you lose your privacy, your obligations get in the way of family time, every joker with an opinion (or, say, a blog) seems to be taking potshots at you—but with all that fame and fortune, surely the benefits far outweigh the risks, right?
The truth is that it’s a very personal calculation, and one that is frequently reevaluated as time goes on. After all, what goes up must eventually come down, and once that benefit-to-risk ratio starts falling and your lowest moments are amplified and broadcast across the country, an artist faces a tough decision about just how hard they want to push to recapture their previous momentum. It works the other way as well: “Retirements” are rarely as final as they seem, with athletes, musicians, and actors often returning after a break for just one more season/album/movie.
This brings us to our subject for today’s deep dive: Chris Cagle, an artist who had a brief run of success during the early and mid 2000s before falling off the mainstream radar. While his career was not a spectacular ones by the numbers (he had only one #1 and just five singles that cracked the Top Ten), he left enough of an impression to leave folks wondering where he went, including Antoinette in the blog’s first Twitter deep dive request:
In looking into Cagle’s departure from country music, it seems that his disappearance falls somewhere between the exits of Rodney Atkins and former NASCAR driver Carl Edwards: After a promising start, Cagle’s momentum was blunted by a series of unfortunate events (including some nasty unforced errors) that turned up the scrutiny on a man who was never really seemed comfortable with the glare of the spotlight, and when he finally had his fill, he walked away and never looked back.
Part 1: The Rise
Stylistically, Cagle presented himself as a modernized, slightly-toned-down version of Travis Tritt when he debuted in 2000 with Play It Loud. While it wasn’t an overnight success (the first and last single failed to make the Top Ten, and his eventual #1 “I Breathe In, I Breathe Out” was a bonus track added to the disc after Cagle was moved from Virgin Nashville to Capitol Records), it earned a gold certification and positioned him as a solid second-tier artist within the genre, a title that was solidified by his self-titled follow-up album in 2003 (which eventually went gold itself).
Like Tritt, Cagle’s music could have a serious edge when it wanted to (see: “My Love Goes On And On,” “Rock The Boat,” and the Bro-country template “Country By The Grace Of God”), but he could also credibly cover weightier topics (“The Safe Side,” “Who Needs The Whiskey”), and he found the most success with heartfelt love ballads like “What A Beautiful Day” and his only No. 1 “I Breathe In, I Breathe Out.” From the outside, Cagle’s stock appeared to be rising, and he was all but assured of a solid career in the industry. However, there were some notable quotes that popped up in later interviews that hinted at his eventual discontent:
“It may sound selfish, but the bottom line is that I’ve got to be the one who says, ‘I love this music. I want to sing this for the next 15 years, God willing.’ I’m not going to go ask anybody else…Yes, I do make the music for the fans. Yes, I hope they buy it. But if I can’t sell it, if I don’t enjoy it, if I can’t hear it and want to sing it over and over, forget about it.” —Cagle, as told to Edward Morris, 2008
Creative control meant a lot to Cagle, and he got it surprisingly early: While he wasn’t Clint Black, he did write or co-write his first eight singles, and also served as a co-producer on Play It Loud, Chris Cagle, and 2005’s Anywhere But Here. When this control waned later in the decade, so did Cagle’s job satisfaction.
“[I am] one of the most insecure people in the world…I think I became a singer because of insecurity, because you want attention and you want approval.” —Cagle, as told to Gayle Thompson, 2008
In their article “10 Things Insecure People Do That Slowly Destroy Their Lives,” Allison Renner puts “they live in fear in judgment” right at the top of their list. This means that any slings and arrows tossed in their direction hurt that much more, as they indicate that a) the person is being judged, and b) they have been found lacking. This wasn’t an issue in the beginning of Cagle’s career, but as the tenor of his coverage turned over time, it wore him down quickly.
“The studio is very boring…[It’s] a monotonous, redundant place. But it has to be. You’ve got to take the time to piece together a platform and a foundation that’s sturdy enough for you to stand on for a year and a half or two years…It’s taking 36 to 42 weeks for even a B-level act to get to the top of the charts. I’m not complaining. That’s just the way it is.” —Cagle, as told to Edward Morris, 2008
Actually, complaining is exactly what he’s doing here: He doesn’t really like being in the studio, and he’s not a fan of how the chart escalator has slowed considerably in recent decades. These are pretty fundamental pieces of the Nashville music business, so if you don’t like them, there isn’t a whole lot to like besides touring.
Altogether, these gripes aren’t going to amount to much when the good times are rolling, as they were for the first few years of Cagle’s career. As 2004 dawned, things began to change.
Part 2: The Fall
The mid to late 2000s were not kind to Chris Cagle in any way, shape, or form, and while some of this was his fault, some of it was also out of his control:
- In 2004, Cagle was diagnosed with “a polyp, a lesion, a cyst and a granuloma on his vocal cords,” which knocked him off the road for three months as he rested his voice.
- In 2005, Cagle released his third album Anywhere But Here, which turned out to be anything but successful: It failed to earn a gold certification, and none of the three singles cracked the Top Ten (in fact, the latter two didn’t make the top forty). Personally, I was super irritated by this album, but for a completely tangential reason: Capitol stuck some irritating Copy Control protection software on the disc, limiting the ability to rip the tracks as MP3 files.
- Later that year, Cagle celebrated the birth of his first child with his then-girlfriend, only to discover that the child wasn’t actually his. Cagle later described the incident as “humiliating” and said that the matter led him to develop an alcohol and weight problem.
- 2007 appeared to be a rebound year for Cagle, as his single “What Kinda Gone” found traction on the radio and eventually made it to #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart. While putting together the album to support the single, however, Cagle lost some of the control that he had previously: Scott Hendricks came in as a co-producer, and he told Cagle that his songs weren’t good enough to make the cut (he would end up with zero cuts on the record). This article also mentions “Hendricks also brought a different approach to recording,” as opposed to the more free-form approach Cagle had used in the past.
- Unfortunately, the good vibes of 2007 didn’t last: In December Cagle was booked for assault after a belligerent fan’s autograph requests escalated to the point where Cagle punched her boyfriend.
- 2008 wound up being no better: In February, while promoting his newest, Hendricks-influenced album My Life’s Been A Country Song, Cagle mentioned that “I’ve got a girlfriend now who’s a great girl.” Unfortunately, three months later he and his then-girlfriend were arrested for domestic assault after a drunken altercation in which “she hit him in the head with an umbrella and…he hit her with her own purse.”
- My Life’s Been A Country Song debuted strong, but its momentum dried up quickly: “No Love Songs” couldn’t crack the top fifty (and given Cagle’s awkward half-spoken delivery, it’s not hard to hear why), and “Never Ever Gone” didn’t make the chart at all. The combination of bad publicity and poor numbers finally exhausted the patience of Capitol Nashville, and by the end of the year Cagle was off the roster.
Put it all together, and Cagle found himself on the business end of the business for several years, and by 2008 he was already ready to call it a career:
“[In 2005] I just came off of a frickin’ [situation] with a girl having a baby…I told everybody I was going to be a father, and I find out a week later that the baby’s not mine. I didn’t want to be visible. Who would? I was at the ranch hearing DJs making fun of me on the radio. It was humiliating…No matter what you’ve done in the past, no matter how good or grand you were as an entertainer or as the life of the party or whatever, the moment s**t goes wrong, some [people] swim up to the blood like sharks and kick you while you’re bleeding…I didn’t want to be in the media. I wanted it to go away…I didn’t want to be in this business anymore.” —Cagle, as told to Edward Morris, 2008 (and this was before the release of My Life’s Been A Country Song)
“I really thought that I was done [with music], and I was okay with it. I was not a happy individual. The business of this thing just didn’t work out the way I thought it would. Just being onstage and having fun cannot be enough. I was super, super angry in my career. I just got to a place where I thought. you know what … it ain’t worth it, man. The guy that I’ve become and the person who I was, I just wasn’t happy with him. I was embarrassed to look in the mirror. I thought, you know what, nothing in this world is worth your moral compass, so I quit.” —Cagle, as told to Alanna Conway, 2011
So that was that: With his popularity waning, his reputation in tatters, and an inability to do things the way he wanted, Cagle retreated from the spotlight, sure that he would never return.
Part 3: The End
By this point, Cagle was overdue for some good luck, and he finally got some: He built a ranch an Oklahoma, got married in 2010, and had two baby girls of his own (his wife also had a daughter from a previous relationship. Away from the media pressure cooker, Cagle began to rediscover what he enjoyed about making music, and began to wonder if he should jump back on the mainstream hamster wheel:
“I definitely missed it. I did probably 20 or 30 shows a year after that. Just being able to do what I had done — in spite of some things — to make it and take what little talent I have and go as far as I did, I was proud of it. At the same time, I wondered what would have happened if I had a big corporate machine pushing this thing.” —Cagle, as told to Alanna Conway, 2011
When the Bigger Picture Music Group approached him about making a record, Cagle jumped at the chance. This time, he co-produced the album with Keith Stegall (he was “blown away by the experience”), and co-wrote five of the tracks (including one eventual single). The result was Back In The Saddle, and…honestly, I wasn’t thrilled with the tracks I heard. The Bro-Country influence on the record was palpable: The leadoff single “Got My Country On” was the sort of trendy party track making bank at the time, and the production on that and “Let There Be Cowgirls” made it sound more like a Brantley Gilbert album than Chris Cagle disc.
Unfortunately, the good vibes Cagle was feeling dissipated quickly:
- “Got My Country On” and “Let There Be Cowgirls” were only minor hits that didn’t crack the Top Ten, and the final single “Dance Baby Dance” (by far the best of the three) crashed and burned at #44.
- Cagle’s return to the spotlight meant another opportunity for the general public to rehash his mid-2000s embarrassments, and Cagle didn’t help matters when he got busted for DUI in 2013.
- Finally, Bigger Picture ended up closing its doors in 2014, leaving Cagle without the label muscle needed to get his music onto the airwaves.
In other words, it was the same old frustrating story for Cagle: Too little radio success, too much gossip fodder, and too little time with his new family. Finally, in November of 2015, Cagle decided that he’d had enough, and he officially announced his retirement.
Two interesting things to note about Cagle’s departure:
- In his announcement, Cagle declared that he was “tired of missing moments like this…and this,” including pictures of his kids in Halloween costumes. Kids grow up fast, and Cagle wanted to experience and savor those moments as much as he could.
- There was also a lot he didn’t want to savor: A day after retiring, Cagle posted another message blasting media outlets that brought up his “career full of mistakes” when discussing his mainstream run. Even at the end, Cagle remained particularly sensitive to criticism.
Cagle was retired once again, but this time, like Edwards after the 2016 season, he meant it. After scouring the Internet, the only thing I can find about Cagle recently is a one-show return to headline Guthrie’s River Ruckus Festival in 2019. The announcement mentions a new album and a live DVD of the performance, but neither appear to be publicly available. He appears to have no official website besides a Facebook account, and his official Twitter account hasn’t posted anything in almost two years. In others, “GONE gone” is the kind of gone we’re talking about here.
As much as I love Chris Cagle’s early work, after going through his career, I get the distinct feeling that he just wasn’t meant to be a major country superstar. He didn’t really seem to enjoy the whole process, and while things were good enough in the early going to mask these issues, it was all downhill from the moment his dirty laundry starting hitting the papers, and he eventually lost control of both the music and the narrative of his career.
It’s really too bad, because I consider Cagle to be pretty solid as both a singer and a songwriter, and I sympathize with his frustration at the inability of the world to move past his transgressions. To his credit, he acknowledged his own role in these incidents and took responsibility for them:
“After all that stuff, I can’t blame anybody because I put myself in that situation, but I didn’t handle the situation well enough. I was in all those situations. It doesn’t just happen … they’re not just accidents. I had to take responsibility for that, but at the same time, I was so angry at life and so angry at the fight I had every day with Capitol Records. I was fed up. I wanted to be happy.” —Cagle, as told to Alanna Conway, 2011
Honestly, I get the sense that he’s found that happiness now as a husband, father, and ex-country singer. My guess is that in time, Cagle will get his wish: It will be the music we remember, and nothing else.