Riders in the Sky & “The Cowboy Way”

cowboy_3BY Jamie Lee Rake

“It’s just doing the right thing…not taking the easy way.”

That’s a succinct description of The Cowboy Way delivered by Doug Green, better known as Ranger Doug, “the idol of American youth” whose serene baritone and acoustic guitar lead family-friendly, comedic Western music band Riders In The Sky, who are set to play Waupun’s historic City Hall at 201 E. Main St. 7 PM, Friday October 9.

Not many groups, much less ones so long-lived and renowned as the Riders, promote an ethical code to inspire their young fans. Seeing a band with such an investment in their passion should be a draw for some already.

That code also slyly acknowledges the straight-shooting behavior of that nearly lost genre of movie, and singing star Riders and other acts who recall the time when “a Western” was once a common addition to country music’s description: the singing cowboy.

“We all grew up in the ‘50s when cowboys were still on TV. That’s part of it,” Green says of some of the inspiration for the combo he assembled with fiddler Paul “Woody Paul” Chrisman, generously mustached upright bass player and wearer of cactus neckties (or cac-ties,” get it?) Fred “Too Slim”LaBour, and accordion master Joey “The Cowpolka King” Miskulin.

Alongside Western dramas like Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Have Gun-Will Travel, TV stations’ schedules in the Eisenhower era were apt to fill weekend afternoons with movies starring upright, guitar-strumming adventurers of the open plains including Gene Autry, Rex Allen and the man to whom the Riders pay tribute on their latest album, Roy Rogers.    

Western movies, and serenading heroes in them haven’t been in vogue for quite a while, but that hasn’t deterred the Riders’ ongoing popularity and objectives.

“Our mission is twofold,” Green explains in the same sort of cucumber cool, beatific tone he possesses when he’s in character, “One, to entertain, to make people happy. Two, to preserve this beautiful style of music.” He avers that what they do, many never get into commercial radio rotation, but neither are Florida-Georgia Line nor Dan Shay apt to ever perform harmonies so sweet as Green and his cohorts.

Niche entity though they may be, the guys’ profile has remained pretty high for much of their 36 years together. It has secured them, among other things, several years of Riders Radio Theater on public radio stations, an early ‘90s live action Saturday morning kids show on CBS, frequent appearances on WSM-AM ‘s famed Grand Ole Opry in their home base of Nashville, and arguably their most enduring insinuation into pop culture, as a presence in Disney productions. 

cowboy_2“That really had nothing to do with us,” Green explains of his group’s initial association with the House Of Mouse in Pixar’s Toy Story 2. “One of the  producers happened to be a fan,” and hooked them up with songs Randy Newman wrote for the CGI blockbuster.

“We have a good relationship with Disney,” Green says, and it’s landed him and his mates in cell animation TV productions like Darkwing Duck and pre-schooler favorite Stanley.

Lest anyone think the Riders are playing strictly to the ankle-biter set, the fun they’re having is steeped in deeper matters. In fact, Green could have been the next Studs Terkel.

“I had a job in oral history,” Green says of his work before donning his ranger hat. That gig led him to a festival of Western swing music, a genre in which he remains involved by way of his side band, The Time Jumpers. Hearing famed cowboy harmonizers The Sons Of The Pioneers (of which Rogers was once a member) at the fest led to memories of his childhood in front of the cathode ray tube watching his Western heroes.

And then…

“I tried to get some guys together for what would become Riders In The Sky,” Green said “and when we found the right ones…initially just Woody and Slim, it was magic from there on.”

But can magic going on four decades stay fresh? The good ranger insists that’s the case.

“Being creative every night with three other really creative guys,” Greed said “remains an incentive to stay on stage for over 175 dates a year. But so does the kick of  throwing each other off their game. We like to crack each other up.” 

There’s no conflict between being a hoot and keeping an artistic tradition alive.

“The music still hasn’t lost its magic.”

Green likes the reception they get for it in Midwestern cities like Waupun, too.

“People up there have this wonderful sense of humor,” Green said “and enjoy having fun and laughing. Out East, it’s like folklore, you have to explain. In the Midwest, it’s entertainment, and people still have a huge appreciation of acoustic music.”

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