If the audience demographics at a Riders in the Sky show don’t sufficiently reflect the group’s cross-generational appeal, then take a close look at two performances the Grammy winning troupe of singing cowboys has given over the past year.
Last October, the quartet found itself on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry (where its members have been members since 1982) with the Sons of the Pioneers. The vanguard Western music ensemble has long been a major inspiration for all of the Riders recruits (and their onstage aliases) — guitarist and vocalist Doug Green (“Ranger Doug”), bassist and vocalist Fred LaBour (“Too Slim”), fiddler and vocalist Paul Chrisman (“Woody Paul”) and Joseph Miskulin (“Joey the Cowpolka King”). Then in June, it was the Riders’ turn to pass along the vintage Western songs of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Sons of the Pioneers, as well as some of their own hits (including the “Toy Story 2” favorite “Woody’s Roundup”) by performing at Bonnaroo.
“We’re committed, and have been from the start, to preserving this music and hoping inspire a new generation with this style of Americana, folk music, whatever you want to call it,” Green said. “Now, a lot of what we do is sheer entertainment. We are not didactic or lecturers or anything. What we do is just fun. People seem to enjoy that element as much as the music, but it works together so beautifully that it’s given us a 40 year career.”
For Green, who formed Riders in the Sky with LaBour in 1977, fascination with cowboy songs began as a child. The reason was simple. The stories at the heart of the music were, unlike country and folk tunes of the day, relatable to young ears.
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“Western music provided the most vivid memories of songs that I remember from when I was a kid,” Green said. “My mother and uncle both sang, but they sang mostly old folk songs — ‘Red River Valley’ and things like that. The first thing I remember hearing on the radio was ‘Cool Water’ (a song about man, mule and mirages penned by Bob Nolan but popularized by both Vaughn Williams and the Sons of the Pioneers in 1948). It was so vivid. When you’re a six year old kid, you don’t know anything about the broken hearts or love affairs of country music. But you could understand the old cowboy prospector out there seeing a mirage.
“I remember hearing ‘(Ghost) Riders in the Sky’ — specifically, Vaughn Monroe’s record of it. That came out in 1949. I was very much a child but I remember it so vividly. I could see the horses riding through the clouds. That’s the sort of thing a kid could understand, which is why that image really stayed with me. When folk music, bluegrass and country music became popular in the 1960s, it was easy to pick up a guitar and learn how to play. That’s what I did, but I brought those Western tunes with me.”
Onstage, the instrumental lightness and the vocal harmonies inherent in Western music provide obvious authenticity to the Riders’ sound. But what the band has long termed “The Cowboy Way” extends to a highly comedic and ultra family friendly presentation of the music. That balance also plays out on the Riders’ new “40 Years The Cowboy Way” album. The group’s reverence for the music plays out in a quietly solemn reading by Green of the 1960 Marty Robbins classic “Big Iron.” On the lighter side is LaBour’s delivery of “I’ve Cooked Everything,” sung in the guise of the long-running Riders stage character Side Meat (a cowboy cook) to the tune of the often-covered 1959 country hit “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
“It’s odd, really, because we’re four very different personalities, but for whatever reason, what we do onstage really works,” Green says. “We still crack each other up, we still have a lot of fun and we still rehearse to get the harmonies just perfect. We still care very much about designing a show that is entertaining. There is a whole show business side to this music. I know that makes it sound cheesy, but we’re supposed to be entertainment.”
IF YOU GO
Riders in the Sky
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9
Where: The Kentucky Castle. 230 Pisgah Pike in Versailles