Sub out the Douglas fir for a cactus and it’s Christmas the cowboy way.
Expect sequined cowboy hats, rope tricks and original and classic holiday songs from Riders In The Sky, the comedic Western troupe that’s been yodeling for 36 years. The band consists of Ranger Doug (guitar, baritone vocals), Too Slim (bass, tenor vocals), Woody Paul (fiddle, tenor vocals) and Joey the Cowpolka King (accordion, baritone vocals). Their 6,522nd performance will be Saturday at Folsom Lake College’s Harris Center.
Music aside, the members of Riders In The Sky are all jokes on and off the stage. “We got together through eHarmony.com,” said Douglas Green, also known as Ranger Doug. “Guys with big hats looking for guys with big hats.”
Actually, they met more conventionally, during various acoustic jam sessions in Nashville in the ’70s. They wanted to revive the pioneer sound – a sound that had been lost to all but the nostalgic – and then the one-liners came naturally.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision,” Green said. “We all just thought we were pretty funny.”
The Riders’ career has spanned mediums. They’ve recorded more than 30 records. There was a Saturday morning children’s series on CBS, a weekly radio theater show on National Public Radio and multiple compositions for Pixar films.
And they’ve straddled some of the strictest of American lines: The Riders have performed at the White House for Democratic and Republican presidents, and at Major League Baseball’s winter meetings for American and National Leagues.
The honors have been plenty. Their albums for “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters Inc.” won Grammy Awards. They’re in the Western Music Association’s Hall of Fame and the Country Music Foundation’s Walkway of Stars. They were the first “Western” musical act to join the Grand Ole Opry, the longest-running radio show in history.
So how does Western music differ from country music? According to the Riders, it’s a small slice of the greater Americana pie, focusing on the outdoors and independence. “It’s about self-reliance and all the good things you associate with a cowboy in Western movies,” Green said. “It’s about standing up for what’s right.”
Green cited a number of successful Western acts that are continuing the style’s vitality, such as Don Edwards, Michael Martin Murphey and Sourdough Slim.
And looking ahead, it’s helpful that the genre seems to resonate with youngsters.
“Songs about broken hearts, unfaithful spouses and falling off the bar stool? Those don’t mean anything to a kid,” Green said. “But riding a horse and singing with your friends? Yeah, they get that.”
As kids, the Riders were fixated on the cowboy image and lifestyle. And they never stopped being fascinated.
“Everyone who grew up in the ’50s wanted to be a cowboy at one time or another,” Green said. “Or a jet pilot, but a cowboy was easier. I suppose.”
Green and the rest of the Riders are in the their mid-60s. But they’re all in good health, and performing once every two days on average throughout the year. Green said he never stops learning, and that he’s playing better now than ever before.
“There’s no reason to slow down,” he said. “It’s still fun to see the country, play music and make people laugh.”
Even with such a long career, the Riders In The Sky manage to keep shows fresh with new songs and new comedic bits. But they’ve stayed true to their original format and intention – there’s always a mix of original music, classic Western covers and general silliness.
“The basic look and feel of the show has been the same from the start,” Green said. “But we can afford better outfits now.”