Music News & Reviews

The Wild West — in four-part harmony

The Grammy-winning band Riders in the Sky is dedicated to keeping western music alive
The Grammy-winning band Riders in the Sky is dedicated to keeping western music alive

Douglas B. Green still remembers the first western song he ever heard on the radio: “Cool Water.”

“It was so vivid,” recalled the performer better known as Ranger Doug, guitarist for the Grammy Awardwinning group Riders in the Sky. “You could see that old prospector dying of thirst in the desert. It stuck with me that this music was alive.”

A cowboy quartet in the vein of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers, the Riders are known for their colorful costumes, charmingly corny comedy and vast repertoire of classic tunes such as “Happy Trails,” “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds ” and “Back in the Saddle Again.” The band celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.

Green described western music as a “vital and integral and important part” of the musical spectrum that includes bluegrass, folk, zydeco and other traditional genres.

“It’s a slice of Americana a piece of American folk and musical history,” Green explained.

Sagebrush-centric movies and television shows roused Green’s interest in the Wild West early on. Then he saw his first live country concert at Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California.

“I was just captivated,” recalled Green, who picked up his uncle’s 1937 Montgomery Ward guitar at age 11. “This was the stuff that I had seen in the movies.”

He remembers being drawn to “the whole romantic idea of sitting around a fire singing with the people you work with,” he said. “It’s hard for a kid to relate to (a song about) an unfaithful wife or a cheating husband, but being on a horse and singing in harmony with your friends? Oh yeah!”

Green retained his fascination with singing cowboys through college, graduating from Nashville’s Vanderbilt University with a master’s degree in English.

“I had been trying the solo singing cowboy thing for several years (but) I could hear all this harmony in my head,” he said.

Together with stand-up bassist Fred “Too Slim” LaBour and fiddler “Windy Bill” Collins, later replaced by “Woody Paul” Chrisman, Green formed “a group modeled very much on the Sons of the Pioneers with original songs and contemporary humor.” (Longtime producer Joey Miskulin — aka “Joey the CowPolka King” — joined the ensemble as accordion player about a decade later.)

“We just made each other laugh uproariously and played this interesting kind of music that no one was playing anymore,” he said. “To us, it was a living thing.”

In November 1977, Riders in the Sky performed for the first time for a small, intoxicated crowd at the Nashville night spot Phranks & Steins. “There was magic that first night,” Green said, as well as a sense that the buckaroo band was “preserving something very special.”

His feelings were confirmed years later when the Riders had the chance to meet and record with many of their heroes.

“At first, we were afraid what these guys would think,” he recalled, but they needn’t have worried. “They said, ‘We’re so glad you’re keeping our memory alive, adding youth and energy to the music.’ It was so exciting.”

Riders in the Sky’s legions of fans obviously share their enthusiasm.

Over the past 35 years, the Riders have released more than 30 albums — including Grammy winners “Woody’s Roundup: A Rootin’ Tootin’ Collection of Woody’s Favorite Songs” and “Monsters, Inc. Scream Factory Favorites” — and performed at the White House, the Grand Ole Opry and the Hollywood Bowl.

“Three packed (concerts) with the Los Angeles Philharmonic You can’t beat that,” Green said. “It’s really been an amazing career.”

The Riders have also branched into other media, appearing as the homespun hosts of the Nashville Network’s “Tumbleweed Theater,” the syndicated radio show “Riders Radio Theater” and a short-lived children’s television show.

Green and LaBour currently host the Sirius XM radio show “Ranger Doug’s Classic Cowboy Corral, winner of the Western Music Association’s “Radio DJ/Program of the Year.”

The Riders, meanwhile, have earned multiple accolades from the Western Music Association, the Academy of Western Artists and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

Green said his enthusiasm for western music hasn’t waned.

“This music is too wonderful and vibrant to pack up and crate with the vinyl,” Green said. “Keep it alive. Don’t let this wonderful American art form be regulated to nostalgia or a museum.”