Riders in the Sky
Riders in the Sky
Western music group
Every time they step on stage, Riders in the Sky give their audience an enthusiastic greeting: “Mighty fine and a great big Western ’Howdy, ’ all you buckaroos and buckarettes!” Dressed like singing cowboys from the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s and 1940s, their music honors the tradition of such movie heroes as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. While their respect for the genre has earned Riders the appreciation of Western music aficionados, their sense of humor has spread their appeal to other audiences, especially children. Their talent for sketch comedy has earned them several stints as hosts of radio and television series. All their audiences have amply awarded them. Besides several awards from Western music associations, they won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Album for Children in 2000 with Woody’s Roundup, Featuring Riders in the Sky, an album that grew out of their work on the soundtrack for the film Toy Story 2.
Musical cowboy may not have been the first career choice for any of the Riders. All three members had earned graduate degrees in other fields before turning to music. When he was merely Doug Green, vocalist and guitarist Ranger Doug earned a master’s degree in literature. Vocalist and bass player Too Slim did the
Members include Paul “Woody Paul” Chris-man (born on August 23, 1949, in Nashville, TN), vocals, fiddle; Douglas “Ranger Doug” Green (born on March 20, 1946, in Great Lakes, IL), vocals, guitar; Frederick “Too Slim” LaBour (born on June 3, 1948, in Grand Rapids, MI), vocals, upright bass; Joey “The Cowpolka King” Miskulin (joined group, 1988), accordion.
Group formed in Nashville, TN, 1977; released first album, Three on the Trail, 1979; joined Grand Ole Opry, 1982; hosted Tumbleweed Theater on The Nashville Network (TNN), 1983-86; hosted Riders’ Radio Theater on National Public Radio (NPR), 1988-96; hosted Saturday morning children’s television show Riders in the Sky on CBS, 1991-92; contributed to Toy Story 2 film soundtrack, 2000.
Awards: Independent Children’s Album of the Year for Saddle Pals, 1986; Western Music Hall of Fame induction, 1993; Wrangler Award for Best Western Album for Always Drink Upstream from the Herd, 1996; Grammy Award for Best Musical Album for Children for Woody’s Roundup, Featuring Riders in the Sky, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Walt Disney Records, 350 South Buena Vista Street, Burbank, CA 91521-6230, (818) 973-4370. Management—New Frontier Management, 1921 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203. Website —Riders in the Sky Official Website:http://www.ridersinthesky.com.
same in the study of wildlife management when he was only known as Fred LaBour, and Woody Paul, King of the Cowboy Fiddlers, was just Paul Chrisman, Ph. D., having received a doctorate in theoretical plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Ranger Doug described the trio as “the most needlessly educated guys in America” to Michael Vaughn of Metro Santa Cruz. All three left other pursuits behind, though, to join the music scene in Nashville, Tennessee. Green worked as a writer, editor, and historian for the Country Music Foundation, while LaBour played with country singer Dicky Lee’s band before they teamed up to start Riders in the Sky.
Riders in the Sky formed at a time when traditional Western music had almost disappeared from a Nashville scene that had become dominated by the outlaw country commonly associated with Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. The group made their debut performance in 1977 at a Nashville night spot called Herr Harry’s Phranks ’n’ Steins. Soon they were performing weekly at Wind in the Willows, a bluegrass club. While Green and LaBour were mainstays, the group didn’t have much luck keeping a fiddler until 1978 when Chrisman stepped in. After catching a performance, he approached the other members and told them, “You boys really need me to help you out,” according to Craig Havighurst in the Wall Street Journal. They accepted his offer, and with his transformation into Woody Paul, the Riders’ lineup was set.
Shortly thereafter, the trio signed a recording contract with the Rounder label. Their 1979 album Three on the Trail exhibited the mix of music and humor characteristic of Riders in the Sky throughout their history. According to reviewer Thorn Owens of All Music Guide, “[T]he music is often quite good and they never deviated from this formula—slightly ironic covers, affectionate jokes and made-to-order originals.” The track “How the Yodel Was Born” showed how they could give a great musical performance while making a joke. The song attributes the origins of yodeling to a cowboy who landed the wrong way on his saddle horn, but this simple joke provided Green with the opportunity to run through a series of intricate, up-tempo yodels while Chrisman accompanied him on the fiddle with snippets from the Popeye theme, a jig, and even a little Mozart.
While active in the recording studio during the 1980s, the full Riders in the Sky experience emerged in their live performances. Wearing their B-movie cowboy outfits, the trio freely interspersed their music with comic skits. Each member developed characters beyond his Riders’ persona. For instance, besides being Too Slim, LaBour, the main skit writer, also developed the characters of Too Jaws, a talking horse skull, and Side Meat, a camp cook who would become infamous for his inedible biscuits. Their unique performances brought Riders in the Sky opportunities to perform in new venues. In 1982 they became members of the Grand Ole Opry, making them a staple of the legendary showcase of country and western music. Their music and humor fit well with the atmosphere of Garrison Kieler’s Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio (NPR), where they became frequent guests. Even Hollywood caught on to Riders in the Sky, leading to movie roles, most notably in Sweet Dreams, the 1985 film biography of country singer Patsy Cline. They even became hosts of a television series, Tumbleweed Theater, a daily showing of classic cowboy movies that ran on The Nashville Network (TNN) from 1983-1986.
While all these various programs had primarily adult audiences, Riders in the Sky’s comedy also endeared them to children. According to Sheila Daughtry of Dirty Linen magazine, “Kids laugh at the silliness and slapstick while their parents chortle at political and cultural zingers whizzing over the kids’ heads.” In 1985 the trio rewarded their young fans with an album just for them, Saddle Pals. It subsequently earned an award as the Independent Children’s Album of the Year.
With their exposure on radio, television, and film, along with their nearly perpetual touring—around 200 live performances per year—the Riders finally caught the attention of a major record label. When they released The Cowboy Way on MCA in 1987, it was the first album of Western music that the label had released in 20 years, and the first Western album to be recorded digitally. Their next album, Riders Radio Theater, took the form of an old-time radio show, mixing skits and commercial parodies with the music. They then took this format to start an actual radio show with the same name, which ran on NPR from 1988-96. For this endeavor they brought on board accordionist Joey Miskulin, better known as Joey The Cowpolka King. He became a regular performer on their recordings, too, even working as their producer.
Riders in the Sky also kept busy performing for children during this time. In 1991, their Saturday morning show Riders in the Sky premiered on CBS. According to Country Music: The Encyclopedia, Green said at the time, “There’s going to be three middle-aged, non-mutant singing cowboys on TV.” The show only lasted for one season, and it put Riders in the Sky in the unusual situation of performing scripts that they didn’t write themselves. Still, it led to the release of the compilation album Saturday Morning with Riders in the Sky.
Throughout the 1990s, Riders’ albums continued their mix of homage to their musical forebears and their trademark humor. Always working within the tradition of Western music, they continued to explore new territories. Cowboys in Love, released in 1994, consisted entirely of Western ballads and love songs, with guests such as Emmylou Harris and Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel joining them on traditional numbers. But the Riders couldn’t resist a few humorous originals, such as “You’re Wearing Out Your Welcome, Matt,” a song addressed to the hero of the long-running Western television series Gunsmoke, reprimanding him for never marrying saloon-keeper Miss Kitty. Released in 1996, Public Cowboy # 1: The Music of Gene Autry, though, maintained its dignity throughout, as the group performed nothing but songs made famous by the legendary singing cowboy on their first album without any original compositions. In 1999 Christmas the Cowboy l/l/ay featured such diverse selections as a twelfth-century hymn, a song entitled “The Prairie Dog’s Christmas Ball,” and a version of “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let it Snow” that incorporated a medley of Christmas songs to show that all holiday songs derive from this one.
Riders in the Sky’s next big success started out as one song and turned into an album. A fan of theirs working for Disney studios recommended them to sing the Western song “Woody’s Roundup,” written by Randy Newman for the animated film Toy Story 2. Impressed with the result, Disney commissioned Riders to do an entire album based in part on the cowboy toys that were characters in the movie. The result was the Grammy Award-winning Woody’s Roundup, Featuring Riders in the Sky, produced by their long-time sideman Miskulin.
The Grammy Award was a crowning achievement for Riders in the Sky, who for years had lobbied for the creation of a separate category for Western music. Although frequently nominated in the country music category, they had never been able to win in a category dominated by the Nashville sound. But in true Riders fashion, the band didn’t rest on its laurels. While still performing together, they started on side projects. Green released a solo album, Songs of the Sage, in 1997, and Chrisman and Miskulin made plans to release A Pair of Kings, backed by Green and LaBour. In addition, the group was slated to appear in TWANG, an IMAX movie celebrating country music.
Three on the Trail, Rounder, 1979.
Cowboy Jubilee, Rounder, 1981.
Prairie Serenade, Rounder, 1982.
Weeds & Water, Rounder, 1983.
New Trails, Rounder, 1986.
Saddle Pals, Rounder, 1987.
The Cowboy Way, MCA, 1987; reissued, MCA, 1991.
The Best of the West, Rounder, 1987.
Riders Radio Theater, MCA, 1988.
Horse Opera, MCA, 1990.
Riders in the Sky, Live, Rounder, 1991.
Harmony Ranch, Columbia, 1991.
Merry Christmas from Harmony Ranch, Columbia, 1992.
Saturday Morning with Riders, MCA, 1992.
Cowboys in Love, Columbia, 1994.
Always Drink Upstream from the Herd, Rounder, 1995.
Public Cowboy # 1: The Music of Gene Autry, Rounder, 1996.
Yodel the Cowboy Way, Easydisc, 1998.
A Great Big Western Howdy from Riders in the Sky, Rounder, 1998.
Christmas the Cowboy Way, Rounder, 1999.
Woody’s Roundup, Featuring Riders in the Sky, Disney, 2000.
(Contributor) Toy Story 2 (soundtrack), Disney, 2000.
Kingsbury, Paul, editor, The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music, Oxford University Press, 1998.
McCloud, Barry, Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers, Perigee, 1995.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, Country Music: The Encyclopedia, St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Wolf, Kurt, Country Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 2000.
Billboard, November 13, 1999, p. 34; July 29, 2000, p. 35; December 2, 2000, p. 44.
Dirty Linen, June/July 1997.
Metro Santa Cruz, March 28, 1996.
People, December 13, 1999, p. 58.
USA Today, February 22, 2001, p. 1D.
Wall Street Journal, January 18, 200, p. A24.
“News from Harmony Ranch,” Riders in the Sky Official Website, http://www.ridersinthesky.com (April 3, 2001).
“Riders in the Sky,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 3, 2001).
“Riders in the Sky,” iMusic, http://imusic.com (April 3, 2001).
"Riders in the Sky." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/riders-sky
"Riders in the Sky." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved April 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/riders-sky
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