World champion bull rider Justin McBride has found something that rivals the “adrenaline rush” of hanging on for dear life to the back of a bull. Today, his thrill is singing his cowboy songs to a live audience.
“It’s pretty nerve-wracking,” says McBride. “You take a song that you believe in, you play it in front of other people and hope that they feel the same way about it that you did. When it all comes together, it’s a great feeling.”
From his 1999 rookie season to retirement in 2008, McBride conquered the world of professional bull riding. But four years ago, he laid down the bull rope to settle down on his western Oklahoma ranch and devote himself to country music.
He had prepared the way for his second career with his debut album, Don’t Let Go, released in 2007, the same year he won the Professional Bull Riders world championship – for the second time. McBride retired from bull riding the next year with 32 career wins. He was the first bull rider to pass the $5 million mark in career earnings, a feat no other cowboy has duplicated since.
Bull riding gave McBride two PBR championship buckles and a very nice nest egg, but the sport also took its pound of flesh. McBride suffered two broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken leg, a crushed ankle and an injured shoulder.
“There was never anything that couldn’t be fixed,” McBride says, and laughs.
He “only had about five major surgeries.” Rods inserted into a leg, an elbow and a hand hold him together.
So McBride, who just turned 33, left professional bull riding at the top and settled down to his second career as a rancher and aspiring country music star. His third album, Highways and Honky Tonks, is due out this month.
McBride says he has always loved country music. He mentioned Waylon Jennings and George Strait as idols, but his principal inspiration is the late Chris LeDoux. LeDoux was a ’60s and ’70s rodeo champ who retired from the arena in 1980 to become an industry legend as a cowboy singer.
“I was listening to Chris LeDoux singing about the kind of life that I wanted to live,” McBride, a fifth-generation cowboy, says about his growing-up years.
McBride picked up his first guitar while on the PBR circuit, looking for a way to unwind on the road. He fell in love with “picking and grinning” with some of his fellow bull riders. The pastime became a passion, and with his new album, McBride will now have three CDs on the shelf.
“I’m by no stretch a songwriter,” McBride says, “but I know some good ones.”
He often teams up with hit songwriter-producers Wynn Varble or Phil O’Donnell. McBride gets an idea for a song, passes it off to a songwriter to develop the first draft, then they work together on the final version. He says his main goal during the process is keeping it real.
“I always try to make sure to do songs that are true to whom I am and what I am,” McBride says. “(I want) to be pretty honest to the kind of life that I’ve led to this point.”
Does the cowboy singer plan to ride his way to the top of the country charts the same way he conquered professional bull riding? McBride says he’s not concerned about winning any awards.
“I just want to make sure that I get better at it each and every show, every record.”
“God’s In Oklahoma”
McBride was born in Texas and raised in Nebraska, but he proudly calls Oklahoma home. McBride lives with wife, Jill, and children Addisen, 6, and Jaxsen, 2, on a 3,100-acre ranch between Sayre and Elk City, on a stretch of I-40 west of Oklahoma City. In his song, “Cowboy ‘Til I Die,” he declares, “First off, I’m an Okie, so don’t call me Tex.”
What’s a family man doing singing about “Highways and Honky Tonks,” one of the songs on his latest CD?
As a young man on the bull riding circuit, “I raised quite a little bit of hell,” McBride admits.
But the cowboy has settled down some since then. One of his favorite things now is the peace and quiet of his ranch.
“Out there where my place is at, I like the solitude of it,” McBride says.
In “God’s In Oklahoma Today,” which he co-wrote with Varble and O’Donnell, McBride croons about how the “sun peeks over the red bluff” of his Oklahoma spread. However, McBride doesn’t want to completely let go of his swaggering cowboy persona.
“There’s still a little bit of an edge and a wild man tucked away in there,” he says.
After dominating a professional sport and taking on the music industry, is there a surprise third act in McBride’s future? He doesn’t think so. Five years from now, he says, he expects to still be “running cattle and hunting and picking and grinning.”
Those are the things that give Justin McBride an adrenaline rush these days.