Still in the saddle

Their music ushers you to a blissful spot beside a cool stream, shaded by a grove of cottonwood trees in high desert country. Your trusty horse, probably named Dusty, grazes contentedly by your side.

Oh, yeah. Then a gaggle of tap-dancing rodeo clowns arrive.

Riders in the Sky (a.k.a. “America’s Favorite Cowboys”) have managed to fuse the sublime with the wacky for 21 years now. That’s approximately 3,500 concerts, 180 national television appearances, 200 public radio shows (including the popular, long-running “Riders Radio Theatre”), three television series, 21 albums and CDs (including several children’s albums) and 1.8 million trail miles.

Blending gorgeous, three-part harmonies with the dazzling fiddle of Woody Paul, the madcap humor and inspired hijinx of Too Slim, and the baritone-voiced singing, masterful guitar-playing, and golden-throated yodeling of Ranger Doug (a recent reviewer called him “just possibly the world’s greatest living yodeler”), the band has preserved the “high, lonesome” Western sound first popularized by singing cowboy legends like Gene Autry — not a bad gig for three “academics.” (Ranger Doug holds a master’s degree in literature, Woody Paul holds a doctorate in plasma physics from MIT, and Too Slim holds a degree in wildlife management.)

The trio first came together in Nashville in the mid-’70s. All three were regular performers — both as solo acts and as members of different bands — on the Music City club circuit. Woody Paul first encountered Ranger Doug when he opened as a solo guitarist for Doug’s bluegrass band at a Vanderbilt University gig. Too Slim and Ranger Doug were neighbors in West Nashville, and the three originally played together just for fun in Ranger Doug’s living room. But one day, a musician friend of the Ranger’s got sick and had to cancel a show at a Nashville nightspot called Phranks & Steins. Ranger Doug stepped in, with a little help from his friends.

“I called Slim and said ‘Slim, we got this job, and I don’t want to do this solo. Let’s get together and play some cowboy songs,'” Ranger Doug explains in the band’s press pack. “Slim said, ‘I need a hat,’ and I told him I had an extra one, and Riders in the Sky was born.”

In the land of jam rock and hip-hop, how has the band’s throw-back sound and straight-arrow cowboy look (replete with white hats) managed to draw increasing crowds for more than two decades?

“Our music was hopelessly out of date when we began, so we didn’t have to worry about it getting stale,” Ranger Doug recently told a reporter. “You wouldn’t want to listen to cowboy music every day, but a couple of days a year it just takes you back to another time, another frame of mind, to that cowboy independence. And the heck with the lousy marriage, the surly teenagers and shaky job — you’re out there riding the range. It’s the appeal of the open, independent West.”

There’s also the nostalgia factor. “There’s a certain window in a kid’s life where cowboys are endlessly fascinating,” Doug told Bluegrass magazine. “Something about that loping feel. For [ages] 3 or 4 to 7 or 8, we’ve got ’em. Then they go listen to the Cranberries or Smashing Pumpkins. But now we’ve been around long enough, we’re getting big guys — 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds — that come up and say [deep voice], ‘Hi, Ranger Doug. I remember when …’ and they’re bringing their kids [to see us] now.”

Riders in the Sky’s latest CD, Public Cowboy #1: The Music of Gene Autry (Rounder, 1996) is a gorgeous tribute to the band’s number-one hero. The first track, “Back in the Saddle Again,” was the first song the band performed that very first night together at Phranks & Steins. The Riders also breathe graceful new life into such standards as “You Are My Sunshine,” “Sioux City Sue,” “Mexicali Rose” and “Be Honest With Me.” A departure from such tongue-in-cheek, humor-infused releases as Always Drink Upstream From the Herd (Rounder, 1995) — which offered such sage wisdom, on “The Trail Trip Song,” as “never look straight up at a bird” and “never squat with your spurs on” — Public Cowboy #1 is marked by an awestruck reverence that’s palpable throughout.

The idea for Public Cowboy #1 came together when the band was taping a television special, An Evening of Country Greats. The trailblazer himself was there. “We’d just loved his songs forever,” Too Slim reports, “and there he was out there in the audience singing along with us. He was just beaming. It was one of the most moving things that has ever happened to us. And that’s when we realized that this should be our next album, a tribute to the guy who started it for everybody, who made the singing cowboy a national phenomenon.”

Too Slim believes the CD is touched with something a little supernatural, too. “We’d been in the studio all week, working on the record,” he explains. “We were finishing vocals on the last day, and there was a little TV up in the corner of the studio that had not been on all week. I happened to turn it on just as Woody was finishing his part on ‘Mexicali Rose,’ and there was Gene Autry in Ride Ranger Ride with his guitar singing ‘Mexicali Rose.’ … I flipped out. It was just cowboy karma.”

Far from being inspired just by Autry and other singing cowboys, though, the band culls inspiration from a host of sources, both real and animated: Ranger Doug lists his personal influences as the Smothers Brothers, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Mad Magazine.

But these restless riders always return to cowboys, in the end — and they think you should, too. As Ranger Doug, scholar and cowpoke, once put it, “In this era of situation ethics, when you’re caught between the scylla and charybdis of difficult moral choices, stop and ask yourself, ‘What would Gene Autry or Roy Rogers or Ranger Doug do?'”

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