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Riders in the Sky: Christmas music, cornball humor

After Monday, Riders in the Sky will hang up its hats and head for the corral.

No, the long-running, Grammy-winning singing-cowboy troupe isn't calling it a day after 32 years of bringing harmony-rich Western music, swing-savvy instrumentals and a big slab of bunkhouse humor to audiences around the country. It's just that its annual Christmas concert at The Kentucky Theatre this year is just a few days before Christmas itself. There will be just enough time for the Riders to hit the trail home for the holidays after Monday's concert, winding up another performance year.

Of course, that makes it sound as if the quartet of guitarist Ranger Doug (Douglas Green), fiddler Woody Paul (Paul Chrisman), bassist Too Slim (Fred LaBour) and accordionist Joey the Cowpolka King (Joey Miskulin) get to indulge in a lengthy winter break on the ranch. No such luck. Come mid-January, Riders in the Sky will take to the road again and tour clear through summer.

"That's been our life for 32 years now," Green said last week by phone while en route to a performance in Greensboro, N.C. "There is no reason to change anything now."

Indeed not. Initially viewed as a revival of a singing tradition that included Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Riders in the Sky has fashioned its ultra authentic Western music into television shows, a seriallike radio series, hit film soundtracks and, of course, holiday music.

The Christmas connection to singing cowboy tradition is extensive. It was Autry who first popularized Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Here Comes Santa Claus (which he composed) and Frosty the Snowman.

The Autry inspiration abounds in the Riders' holiday shows, along with holiday cowboy polkas, some seasonal vaudeville from LaBour (Sidemeat's Christmas Goose), gentler spiritual fare (Corn, Water and Wood) and even some vintage country yuletide fare (the often-covered Tex Logan classic Christmas Time's A-Coming).

It's all as G-rated as can be, in keeping with a brand of country and Western music produced in an altogether more innocent age.

"I think that's what people enjoy so much about the season, too — the entire innocence of it," Green said. "It's the fact that people do smile at you in the street. All of a sudden, everyone's excited about getting something for their kids or their spouse. There is an undeniable magic to this time of year."

But what of the tunes that don't have a specific Western or holiday heritage? How can, say, Jingle Bells or I'll Be Home for Christmas work in a program that boasts such non-yuletide cowboy favorites as Happy Trails, Wah Hoo and the 60-year-old anthem that gave the group its name, Ghost Riders in the Sky?

"What we do is approach each song with the idea of how we can make it into a Riders classic. It's a challenge because you've been hearing these songs on the radio every day, all day, since Thanksgiving. You hear them in all kinds of versions, too, from swing to pop to classical. It's overwhelming, really. So we just try to put our stamp to it with our own particular sound and arrange it so that it's a little bit unique."

Such a stamp is evident on two holiday albums that Riders released during the 1990s — 1992's Merry Christmas From Harmony Ranch (on which Deck the Halls becomes Deck the Bunkhouse Walls) and 1999's Christmas the Cowboy Way (in which The Last Christmas Medley You'll Ever Need to Hear sets snippets of a dozen or so carols to the tune of Let It Snow).

But anyone thinking that the Riders treat holiday music as parody need to check out the group's crisply harmonious take on The Friendly Beasts (cut for Christmas the Cowboy Way but regularly revisited during the holiday shows) that brings to mind the sterling country version of the tune cut in 1961 by the Louvin Brothers.

Of course, what ultimately sells the harmony, humor and rich singing cowboy tradition of any Riders recording — be it a holiday classic or not — is that a resilient band spirit has long fueled the quartet onstage and off.

"We're extremely lucky in that respect," Green said. "Most groups don't have that bond, which is why so few last 30 years or more.

"We were laughing about that today at lunch. The sound man at the venue we were playing was telling us about a band whose members showed up for a show separately, didn't speak to each other at sound check and left afterwards in separate cars.

"I mean, holy cow, how would you like to live like that? It would be like digging ditches for a living."