The AngryCountry Interview: Ranger Doug (Riders in the Sky)
Wednesday, June 01 2005 @ 03:04 PM EDT
Contributed by: ACstaff
With twenty-seven plus years and well over 4,800 performances and counting under their collective belt, Riders In The Sky, the Grammy-winning Western music group whose music is firmly grounded in the rich American music traditions of such legendary cowboy singers as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the Sons of the Pioneers... and whose fun-filled performances have enchanted audiences of all ages... are themselves the stuff of legend.
Indeed, the Riders... Ranger Doug (Idol of American Youth), Woody Paul (King of the Cowboy Fiddlers), Too Slim ("a Righteous Tater”), and Joey (the CowPolka King)... have single-handedly revived and revitalized an entire music genre since they formed in 1977. With their recent induction into the prestigious Walk of Western Stars in Newhall, California, they have only added more luster to an extraordinary career that long ago placed them rightfully alongside the all-time greats as the world's premiere Western recording and touring band.
The humorous aspect of the Riders, of course, is inherent in their identities:
Guitarist Ranger Doug, "Governor of the Great State of Rhythm," sings lead and baritone vocals with an ever-present big grin and warm twinkle in his eyes. A yodeler of breathtaking technique, he is also an award-winning Western music historian whose 2002 Vanderbilt University Press book, "Singing in the Saddle" was the first comprehensive look at the singing cowboy phenomenon that swept the country in the 1930s.
Upright "bunkhouse" bassist Too Slim, easily the sharpest wit in the West, was, prior to the Riders, a janitor, industrial galvanizer, puppeteer, rumor-monger, hay stacker, burlesque show emcee, sportswriter, wildlife manager, and electric bass man. Besides his superb bass play and comic genius, he has inspired thousands to whack out tunes on their faces.
Woody Paul, "King of the Cowboy Fiddlers," sings lead and tenor vocals, and gained early experience in country-western music by hanging out with the likes of Roy Acuff. When not dazzling Riders’ fans with his fiddle, he is thrilling them with intricate rope tricks which he swears he will get right before his career is over.
Accordionist Joey, “The CowPolka King”, "plays both ends against the middle," as they say, on his "stomach Steinway." The master musician, who apprenticed with the late polka king Frank Yankovic and has played with everyone from Roy Rogers to U2, is also the Riders’ album producer and a licensed driver. One of Joey's latest productions for the Riders is "Silver Jubilee" (Acoustic Disc), a two-CD set of new recordings of their best-loved songs... along with a bonus live mini-concert. It is the 32nd album from the group (averaging well over one album release a year), and perhaps the quintessential Western music album of the modern era.
There can be no doubt, however, that after twenty-seven years, more than 5,000 performances (a rate of one show every other day!), 3,001,430 miles traveled, and 296 national television appearances, Riders In The Sky, whose history has now been recounted in Don Cusic's biography, "It's the Cowboy Way!," is among the most historically significant acts in the history of American music. For this reason, I was honored to sit down with Riders In The Sky guitarist Ranger Doug and bring our readers the following interview.
Christie: I understand that Riders In The Sky was inducted into California's Walk of Western Stars... could you tell our readers about this?
Ranger Doug: Well yeah, they have a place up in Newhall or Santa Clarita, where so many of the westerns were filmed; they have started a walkway of western stars. We were inducted, along with Hopalong Cassidy and Buck Taylor who was on Gunsmoke. It was really quite a thrill! In fact, most of our heroes are there... Roy and Gene, Eddy Dean, and Jimmy Wakely and all of the singing cowboys who sang to the pioneers and whom we love.
Christie: Our readers and new fans to country music may not be aware that Riders did a companion album for Disney/Pixar's Toy Story2 and also for the film Monsters, Inc... could you tell us more about these projects?
Ranger Doug: Yes, both of which won Grammy awards (he adds with pride.) The people at Pixar are fans of ours and thought that we would be perfect to sing the song "Woody's Roundup" in the movie Toy Story2; so they used their influence on Disney to have Disney Records release an album of companion songs. We got to write a few and they picked out most of them; Woody's Roundup won a Grammy in 2001 and featured Riders In The Sky. When Monsters, Inc. came out , they did not have a spot for us in the movie itself; but we did the soundtrack for the musical that came on before it... it's a little musical short "For The Birds" and that won an Academy Award - not for us, of course - but we were proud to be a part of it. We also did an album of all monster songs, a departure for us, an only album of monster songs composed entirely by a Western group in the history of show business (entitled "Scream Factory Favorites) and it won a Grammy in 2003. (he laughs)
Christie: It is also understood that Riders continues to record seasonal episodes of Riders Radio Theatre... could you tell us more about this radio program?
Ranger Doug: Riders Radio Theatre went on the air about 1988. At its peak, it was on about 160 or 170 public radio stations around the country; anyone who has heard it would remember it because it was pretty darn crazy in its day. It was the format of an old western radio show; kind of a cliffhanger adventure. A lot of zany comedy and music naturally, as we do that as well; that is how we started after all. (he laughs) It spent a year in Nashville at its home at WPLN and they dropped it; then it went to WPXU in Cincinnati who picked it up and they ran with it for about five or six more years. Eventually it just went to specials and that is what we have been doing lately. Some stations still carry it in reruns, but not like it was at its peak.
Christie: In 1982, Riders became the first exclusively Western music artist to join the Grand Ole Opry... what has this meant to Riders, as Western music style artists?
Ranger Doug: I think the Opry liked it because it was something completely different than what anyone else was doing on the show and it still is; so it provides a lot of variety for them, as well as humor. Humor is always good because hearing one singer perform after another needs to be broken up to make it work. For us, it was an honor to be a part of that long great tradition and certainly country music has been a big influence on Western music and the western style; so you could say that it is a part of the roots of what we do and we are proud to be a part of the show.
Christie: Well Ranger Doug, besides being a distinguished songwriter, I understand that you are also an accomplished book writer... could you tell our readers about your Vanderbilt University Press book, "Singing In The Saddle?"
Ranger Doug: Yes, it came out in 2002 and it was the result of about twenty-five years of passionate research into the Western musical style that I make a living in and love. You know how when some people get excited about something, they just cannot find out enough about it... and that is the kind of person that I have always been. From the very start, I have been routing around finding old pictures, documents, articles, anything that pertained to the singing cowboy. I was lucky to be able to interview many of them, while they were still alive including Jimmy Wakely and Eddie Dean and the great producer Art Savenly. I had a lot of background to work with; and year after year went by and still no one did a serious academic study of the phenomenon.
Christie: As long as I can remember, my Grandmother always kept a photo of Gene Autry on her dresser. I find that newcomers to country music and new fans to the genre often forget about or do not know of those who came before. I think that it is important that we never lose sight of the great artists who opened the doors for all the newcomers to come into both the music and the Grand Ole Opry.
Ranger Doug: True! But, you know, in the middle of a career, memories are short. People forget that in his day Gene Autry was a huge, huge star; he was bigger than Garth Brooks. This is what makes someone like Marty Stuart so exceptional; he still cares about the traditions of the past.
Christie: Riders history has been recounted in Don Cusic's biography "It's The Cowboy Way!"... could you explain to our readers more about this?
Ranger Doug: Don is a professor at Belmont University and a lover of Western music, in particular, but country music in general. Another fella had an idea to do a biography and had gotten bogged down in it; Don knew about this and knew the man and suggested that he just take the project over. Don was lucky enough to get the University Press of Kentucky to publish it; it is just our story through the first twenty-five years.
Christie: Riders has been making Western music for twenty-seven plus years... why do you feel that (a) Western music remains so popular? and (b) why do you feel it is important to keep this style of music alive?
Ranger Doug: I think that every folk-based American music style is worth saving inherently; we ought to save all of them! I am glad that we found our little niche and I have spent a career and a lifetime saving this one. I think that as a lover and appreciator of what came before, those things are worth saving. I think that Western music remains so popular because it is just a refreshing change. It is not someone singing about feeling sorry for themselves, or about getting drunk at top volume. It is refreshing to hear guys sing about the great outdoors, in a moderate volume, in nice harmony and who play their instruments well and have a sense of camaraderie.
Christie: I totally agree. We at AngryCountry, while we still appreciate those who are bringing a new style into country music, do remain traditionalist. We never want to find a time when the artists move away from what is inherently country - strong storytelling without foul lyrics and inappropriate subject matter.
Ranger Doug: Well, I am with you; I turned off my radio in 1958. I wish all of the younger folk well in their careers and hope that they are very successful and I appreciate what they do; but what I like to listen to is the old stuff. (he laughs)
Christie: Having been in country music for a number of years... what changes have you seen in country music? And do you feel that these changes have been for the better or hurt country music?
Ranger Doug: I think that change is inevitable. In fact, it is probably desirable for people who want to sell records because you cannot keep the same sound going for years and years. As I said before, I wish the new people well... you just cannot stop change, you just have to enjoy what you like about it and turn the rest off.
Christie: What is saddening, however, is that many are being turned off to country music entirely because it is the same few artists who repeatedly are heard on country radio. They, like myself, would like to see a return to radio of past when you could hear everything from the British invasion, to Motown, to pop played. It is my feeling that all great music and artists deserve to have their music heard and appreciated.
Ranger Doug: Indeed, and new ones will come in... it is just the nature of the entertainment business; you just cannot stop that. What I think is the real saving grace for us, in these modern days, is I-Tunes on the internet and satellite radio where you can get the enormous spectrum that you want.
Christie: Yes, I listen to XM radio to be able to hear newcomers and have some variety.
Ranger Doug: (laughing) It's what I listen to.
Christie: Riders has had its hand in so many wonderful projects, what is next for Riders In The Sky?
Ranger Doug: Most recently we are doing the music for a cartoon that Charles Shultz' daughter is doing; it is called "Jasper." An album of that has just come out. We also did some music for a Warner Brothers cartoon on the Cartoon Channel called "Duck Dodgers." We'd love to do more of this. And of course, we continue to tour at a frantic rate of 180 or more dates a year and still love it. We are all still healthy and having fun and still creating.
Christie: Of course, Riders In The Sky will be involved with Bill Anderson's 9th Annual City Lights Festival event this year... could you tell us about this up-coming event?
Ranger Doug: (laughing) I really don't know that much about it, so I can't. Bill asked us to do it and the date was open and we are big fans of his, and friends as well, so we said "Sure! Whatever you need." So, we'll be there.
Christie: We have a signature question that we like to ask each artist... what is the one thing that your fans would be most surprised to know about Riders In The Sky?
Ranger Doug: We do not wear our boots and chaps, when we workout at the YMCA. (we both laugh hysterically.)
Christie: And finally, is there anything else that you would like to say to our readers and to your fans?
Ranger Doug: Well, this music is such a passion with us; it is always such a delight to have people come up to us after a show and thank us for keeping this music alive. I guess that I would say to the fans that one way to keep it alive is to keep coming to the shows and supporting Western music; we deeply, deeply appreciate it! Keep the cowboy spirit alive by supporting it.
NOTE: AngryCountry wishes to extend our sincere thanks to Ranger Doug for taking the time to interview with us. We urge our readers to come out for what will be a spectacular event at Bill Anderson's City Lights Festival annual event. Riders In The Sky will be the featured artist during the “dinner with the stars" portion of the event. For more information on City Lights, please visit www.billanderson.com.
City Lights Press Release: http://magazine.angrycountry.com/article.php?story=20050428130244175
Riders in the Sky: http://www.ridersinthesky.com/