Riders in the Sky: Keeping the Country & Western Traditions Alive for 40 Years
Although I did not know it at the time, the first time I heard Sons of the Pioneers was in a B western at my neighborhood movie theater. That led me to a near lifelong fascination with country and western music, with the emphasis on the western part. I think it was the harmonizing that struck me, and its association with deserts and other wide open spaces that were like foreign countries to a child of Appalachia.
As an adult I put away childish things like B westerns, but not my fascination with the West and its music. While individuals such as Michael Martin Murphy and Colter Wall are helping to keep some of those traditions alive, there is only one group that is keeping the entire tradition alive, including the harmony: Riders in the Sky. I doubt it was mere coincidence that they took their name from a Sons of the Pioneers album. (An album which I have, by the way.)
Riders in the Sky have just celebrated their 40th anniversary, have recorded over 30 albums, won two Grammys, are members of the Grand Ole Opry, have had several TV and radio shows, written music for motion pictures, made their acting debut in the 1985 Patsy Cline biopic Sweet Dreams as The Jordanaires, and continue to play sold out shows. They also have a lot of big-name fans, including master Marty Stuart and two presidents. (More samples are included in the slideshow below.) So, I found it a bit odd with all this history and popularity that so few articles have been written about them. I decided to correct that bit of injustice.
Riders in the Sky’s four members are Ranger Doug (Douglas B. Green) on guitar, Woody Paul (Paul Woodrow Chrisman) on fiddle, Too Slim (Fred LaBour) on bass, and Joey the Cowpolka King (Joey Miskulin) on accordion. While they are, of course, excellent musicians, they also harken back to when country music had a good amount of good-natured comedy in its live shows. That sense of humor also serves to underscore that in a music world that sometimes seems to be so fraught with tension, these guys not only get along, they enjoy each other’s company. That, no doubt, has been a cornerstone of their longevity. They also dress the in the colorful cowboy way, to the delight of their audiences — and photographers. Nor do they turn away any fan who wants their picture taken with them. In the old country tradition, they know this is how it was done, and how it ought to be done.
When I asked about their continued popularity, Doug Green responded: “Yes, it’s a surprise, I guess once you’re established you can usually go on for some time if you’re not chasing the hit record, if you find a comfortable middle ground like we have where you do a lot of different things and keep it interesting. But you couldn’t have predicted us taking this dated form of music in 1977, which was strictly nostalgia in those days, and bringing it to two new generations. No, I never could have predicted it, but I’m delighted it happened.”
Continuing, Green said that their songs of the range and the cowboy life have broad appeal: “It’s always had a wide spectrum. We get a large number of people who remember this music when it was popular or were raised with it because their parents loved Western music, so we have this demographic that has sort of a nostalgia edge to it. Then there’s some people in their middle age that want to bring their kids to see it, an acoustic music show with harmony. Well, it’s a pleasant thing. A lot of people love the fact that we’re keeping the Western tradition alive.”
Hall of Fame and Live Shows
Riders in the Sky has also been recognized by and performed at the National Fiddler Hall of Fame when Woody Paul was honored in 2012 for his contribution to the art of fiddling. You can read about that in Julie Wenger Watson’s ND article here.
During live shows, the band often show clips from cowboy movies, notably those featuring Roy Rogers and Trigger, with Slim coming out as Rogers’ sidekick Gabby Hayes, singing a tribute to him. Most often they perform “Don’t Fence Me In,” and, of, course, “Happy Trails,” which many a baby boomer remembers from the TV show with Dale Evans. Other cowboys also make an “appearance,” such as Ranger Doug’s “Back in the Saddle Again,” Gene Autry’s signature song.
They also take good-natured shots at modern country music and work in such one-liners as “If this was a logical world, men would ride side-saddle,” and one about Matt Dillon (“Gunsmoke”) that evoked Miss Kitty, “You’re Wearin’ Out Your Welcome — Matt.”
But don’t be fooled by the shtick. As stated above these guys are musicians of note and often appear with symphony orchestras around the country, and these shows, too, tend to sell out. So, they are just as at home in revered symphony halls as they are in oprys.
Appearance at the 2018 Philadelphia Folk Festival by Mark J. Smith
They are also right at home at music festivals, and ND photographer Mark J. Smith recently caught them at this year’s Philadelphia Folk Festival. His photos are included below, and here’s what he had to say about that performance:
It is said of the Riders in the Sky that they are purveyors of C&W — comedy and western — and that they are. Their western wit for sure is more than a good sense of humor, it is flat-out standup comedy. Then there is their music. It stood with the best I heard all weekend at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Sitting around with other photographers, I must have heard 20 times or more a reference to New Riders of the Purple Sage. My constant refrain was, “No, it is Riders in the Sky.” Think Roy and Gene, you know, real western music. Yep, I can picture cowboys sitting around a campfire on roundup singing songs, cracking jokes, and some cowboy poetry. Well, that’s the Riders in the Sky wrapped up in four really talented guys.
Now I too wear cowboy shirts a lot, mostly denim with some nice dress shirts. But I have nothing like the gear they wear: bright colors, flowers, musical notes, ropes, horses, guitars, etc. and that’s only on one sleeve.
So, now to the music, that western music I mentioned. Incredibly good. No matter your musical interests these guys can play and sing. My understanding is that they are tops in their fields for their individual instruments, and I can attest to it. Guitarist Ranger Doug, Too Slim on standup bass (yes, he plays songs slapping his face), Woody Paul, King of the Cowboy Fiddlers, and Joey playing accordion both ends against the middle had people up and dancing with big smiles on their faces. These guys are the real deal and such a treat.
Note: The photos taken at Bluegrass Underground are by Mary Claire Crow; Don Putnam took the ones at the Grand Ole Opry; and Sue Rosoff took the one at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and are used with permission. All other photos, except the ones noted as being by Mark, were provided by the artist.