On the evening of Nov. 11, 1977, fans at Herr Harry’s Franks and Steins in Nashville, TN got to witness a little bit of history in the making – the first performance of The Riders In The Sky. The trio originally consisted of “Ranger Doug” Green, “Windy” Bill Collins, and “Too Slim,” aka Fred LaBour. Collins would remain with the group for their first year, and would be replaced by “Woody Paul” (Paul Crisman).
Forty years later, the trio – along with accordion player Joey The Cow-Polka King (Joseph Miskulin, who started playing with The Riders in 1988 and — as the newbie in the group — leads Green to quip “I believe he’s going to work out”), are still delighting audiences with their unique style of American music. Along the way, the Riders have been featured members of the Grand Ole Opry since 1982, have hosted their own CBS Saturday morning show, and won a pair of Grammys for their work with Pixar.
While their music – and their act – are steeped in the film heyday of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, their musicianship remains as tight and as precise as it did that cold night in Music City some four decades ago. With the release of 40 Years The Cowboy Way, their latest project, they continue to add another layer to their impressive resume. Billboard is excited to bring you an exclusive first listen to the project here.
Green says that the past forty years have passed by like lightning, adding that it’s been nothing but a fun time. “It’s surreal. It doesn’t seem like it could possibly have happened, and yet, here we are – still out there having fun, and with people still out there buying tickets to see us have fun,” he said. Over the years, some of those fellow famous people that have sat in the Riders’ audience include the late Gene Autry, Tom Hanks, Ken Burns, and even Bill Nye The Science Guy. That, combined with an age bracket of fans that range from eight to eighty, and it’s apparent that the appeal of The Riders In The Sky is timeless.
“Too Slim loves to tell the story about the lady who came up to him after a show, and told him that she was sitting between her son and her dad, and that you’re the favorite group of them both. There’s something timeless about western music — and about laughter, too. People always want to laugh, and always will. The combination of the two has been really successful for us.”
Too Slim agrees with that assessment, and adds that the band remains as committed to preserving the integrity of their music much the same way they did in 1977. “I think there’s a love of the music between us. There’s a challenge to play it, and play it correctly. The musician in us is always interested in that, and there’s a lot of room for freedom. The songs are not the same every night. There’s some room for expression. I think, at the risk of sounding serious, there’s a sense of mission to what we do. We’re not just playing songs to make a living. We’re part of a tradition. There’s a rich western music tradition that was pretty much gone from the cultural landscape for a long time, and we sort of revived that – and have added to it, and pushed it forward. I think there’s a sense of it being a larger thing going on that is helpful when you are broken down on the side of the road, and are trying to get to the next gig.”
Many of those “next gigs” have taken place at the Grand Ole Opry, where the Riders have been members of the show’s cast since 1982. Unlike most of their fellow members, the Riders were invited to join the show’s cast list without a hit on commercial country radio. Green says they were just fortunate to be extended an invitation at a time when the show was broadening its musical scope a bit.
“I think we were at the right place at the right time. Hal Durham, who was the Opry manager at the time, was feeling that the Opry needed something different than that model. That was about the time they added Ricky Skaggs and The Whites. We were bringing something different to the Opry that it never really had. Zeke Clements had been a cowboy on the Opry in the ’30s, but they never had a full cowboy band. We were an outfit that could add to the Opry tradition, and make people laugh at the same time. We kind of filled two slots at once, because there weren’t that many comedians.”
Of their run on CBS, both Green and LaBour remain grateful. “That was so incredible,” said Green. “What struck me the most was how professional the crews were. It was not a good old boys network. It was ‘Pop, Pop, Pop, get it done.’ It was fun to be a Saturday morning cartoon hero. I really enjoyed it.” LaBour says they still see the results of that association today. “I think that is one of the reasons we’re still here. It appealed to kids. We get a lot of people that still come to the shows and tell us ‘I used to watch you on Saturday mornings. Now, my kids are listening to your records.’ It touches upon the whole family, which is why it’s great.”
Then, there was the Toy Story 2 connection, which Green said was very fortunate, but also happened by chance. “We love the people at Pixar. They’ve been really good to us. We had a fan in the organization, and they were having a story meeting one day. They said ‘We need a theme song.’ So, they had Randy Newman write one called ‘Woody’s Roundup.’ Then, they wanted someone to sing it – someone who sounded like a cheesy cowboy band from the ’50s. This young man, Ash Brannon, said ‘I know those guys.’ He dialed up ‘yodeling’ on his computer, and they looked around at each other and said ‘That’s our band.’ They gave us a call, and asked if we’d be interested in appearing in it. We thought it over for about an eighth of a second, and said ‘Yes.’ That association extended to a pair of albums for Pixar – including Monsters, Inc. Scream Factory Favorites, which won the Riders their second Grammy for best musical album for children in 2003.
Never one to rest on their considerable laurels, Green is excited for fans to hear the new music. “We wanted to make an album that was a traditional Riders In The Sky album. We made about forty records, and the last few were tributes – one to Gene Autry, one to Roy Rogers — and we did an album with Wilford Brimley, and an inspirational album, so we wanted to do a classic Riders album. That’s what we did. It’s got some classic western songs, some comedy, some character songs, and it just sounded fresh and fun. I think it turned out well. “
It’s a success story that continues to grow, but did the band have any idea of this in 1977? LaBour would love to take credit, but he’ll stop just shy of saying so. “I knew America would pay attention… but I didn’t know how long that they would pay or for how long. I think we’re in the gravy area. Anything that happens now is just gravy. People say ‘Keep doing this. Don’t let this die.’ So, that carries some weight.”
And, if the name Fred LaBour rings a bell — and you’re a Beatles fan — there’s an interesting tie to the Riders and the Fab Four. “I was a student at the University of Michigan. I was reviewing Abbey Road, and thought I would write a satirical review for the Michigan Daily saying that Paul was dead and that he had been replaced, and that information had been released to the world via a bunch of clues in the album cover and in the lyrics. I thought it was hilarious,” he said of the Oct. 14, 1969 headline that was inspired by the WKNR broadcast about the rumor from two days prior. Other fans, of course, not so much.
“I expected people to respond humorously to it, but they took it seriously. So it became this worldwide phenomenon. I was 19 years old. I didn’t know what was going on. It became a huge thing.”