Riders in the Sky – Entertainment the cowboy way
One look at the stage set-up of a Riders in the Sky show and you’ll know right away that this isn’t going to be just an average, country music concert. Sparsely and somewhat humorously decorated, it displays stuffed toys (like armadillos, possums and coyotes), a mock fire pit, artificial cacti, a lasso (wait until fiddler “Woody Paul” reaches for it and starts doing tricks) and yes, even a horse skull (which bassist “Too Slim” might maneuver into talking if you’re lucky, with hilarious results).
When the members of the group, which also include guitarist “Ranger Doug” and accordion player “Joey the Cow Polka King,” appear from behind the curtain dressed from head to toe in outrageously colorful, sequined shirts, chaps, cowboy hats, boots and bandanas, they seem so over-the-top that for a moment you’ll wonder just WHAT it is that you’ve paid for. But the instant they start to play and sing in their rich, lively tenor and baritone harmonies your toes will begin tapping, your head will bob, and your hands will automatically start clapping.
These talented musicians offer something extra-special: they’ve kept alive old-time Country and Western Swing tunes – dating back to the 1930s – mixing their own compositions in with those of Gene Autry, the Sons of the Pioneers, Tex Ritter and many others. Additionally, in-between (and sometimes during) the songs they’ll cause audience members to double over with laughter from the spontaneous, shoot-from-the-hip wisecracks and one-liners that they relentlessly toss back and forth. The camaraderie between the four men shines through loud and clear and it truly is a joy to watch.
“We’ve been playing together for 34 years (Joel joined in the 1990s),” Ranger Doug told me during a phone interview on January 20 from Grand Junction, Colo., shortly before they performed at the historic Avalon Theatre. “The egos got put into the back seat a long time ago and we’re very agreeable with each other. We all come up with funny things every day.” Veteran performers with an astonishing record of 6,205 (and counting) live performances; almost 300 national television appearances; over 200 public radio shows; and since 1982, 700 appearances on the Grand Ole Opry*, they are equally relaxed when it comes to their pre-show routines. “Aside from calling home and doing vocal warm-ups,” he continued, “there’s not much of anything needed beyond running over new things plus doing sound and microphone checks.”
Songs are constantly rotated – each performance is slightly different – and there are plenty to choose from when one considers that this prolific group has turned out some 30 albums so far which include inspirational music; children’s themes; tributes to past singers; and for movie buffs, a composition entitled “Woody’s Round-Up” for “Toy Story II”. (They won a Grammy for that song, along with another for “Monsters, Inc. – Scream Factory Favorites.”). During a live performance, you might hear such classics as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Don’t Fence Me In” or “Blue Bonnet Lady” along with original, tongue-in-cheek favorites such as “That’s How the Yodel Was Born,” which showcases Ranger Doug’s own, stellar yodeling skills. The lyrics have something to do with a bronc, a cowboy, a powerful buck and a saddle horn … you can figure the rest out.
The best part of a Riders concert, though, is the “meet-and-greet” session that they hold after each show. Rather than bolting to catch a plane or stretch limo, these guys actually come out to stand at a table and sign autographs for their fans. I’d first witnessed this courtesy back in 1983 at a small scale, Gallipolis, Ohio, club but couldn’t believe that such a thing still continued after so much time and fame. “It’s part of the job,” Ranger Doug explained, “and well worth the extra half-hour.” What about security? I pointed out that when I saw them perform in Delta, Colo., in the fall of 2010 there hadn’t been any hulking bodyguards in the background. “We don’t attract that type of fans,” he said simply. But have they ever had a woman unexpectedly lurch across the table to grab and kiss them (like I might have done had my husband not been behind directly me)? He chuckled. “Only about 1 percent … although we HAVE had a few who wanted their T-shirts signed (in strange places, while wearing them). But it doesn’t happen often.” My guess is that it wouldn’t be the Cowboy – or Cowgirl – way.
The members of Riders in the Sky, who are also known as Douglas B. Green, Fred LaBour, Paul Chrisman, and Joey Miskulin, have not only gotten to play in each of the 50 states during their careers but they’ve also travelled the world. It’s something that Ranger Doug expressed a deep appreciation for, and the sincerity came through during our conversation. It was hard to stay focused while speaking with him, however. I felt a little bit star struck since he is, after all, “The Idol of American Youth.” (He’ll never know how close my sister came to losing an arm at the Opry back in February, 2009 during a family trip. I yanked it pretty hard, squealing “Ya gotta see these guys!” as they were taking the stage.) Still, it was impossible to resist asking him out of curiosity, “What would you be doing if you weren’t part of Riders in the Sky?”
“Five to 10 in Joliet,” he immediately deadpanned. It was the perfect answer … I’m still laughing.
Of note: Special thanks to Josh Minton of New Frontier Management in Nashville, Tenn., for arranging the interview, supplying the stock photos, and giving me Ranger Doug’s phone number. Can I keep it?
* Stats were taken off of the official Riders in the Sky and Wikipedia internet sites.