The group Riders in the Sky has been entertaining crowds since 1977 with cowboy music. In other words, you could say the band is knowledgeable about what they call the “cowboy way.”
It’s fitting that the group will bring a show saluting Roy Rogers to the McCallum Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 15.
Riders in the Sky includes Ranger Doug (Douglas Green), Too Slim (Fred LaBour), Joey the Cowpolka King (Joey Miskulin) and Woody Paul (Paul Chrisman). The group has also been a hit with children thanks to a contribution to the Toy Story soundtrack, an appearance on Barney and Friends and TV shows of the group’s own.
During a recent phone interview, Ranger Doug said the salute to Roy Rogers is based on a recently released album.
“We have a new album coming out called Riders in the Sky Salute Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys. We’ve been doing the whole tour this past summer and fall with that theme in mind,” he said. “We’ll be doing a lot of material from his movies and recording career. We’ll be showing two-minute clips of the movies and mixing that all in with our regular humor and the regular songs people have heard us play through the years.”
Riders in the Sky has done similar salutes to other figures in cowboy music and has covered a variety of classic cowboy songs. It makes sense the group would do the same for Roy Rogers.
“He was the king of the cowboys and our boyhood hero,” he said. “He and Gene Autry were pretty much the demigods of the singing cowboys. We saluted Gene Autry 10 years ago with an album of his tunes, and we felt it was the time to do it for Roy. A lot of people don’t realize that he was one of the founding members of the Sons of the Pioneers. He was with the group for four years before he broke into movies and as a solo artist.”
As for the show, he said many of the songs picked are from Rogers’ films.
“The focus will be on Roy Rogers, and some of the songs will be very familiar,” Ranger Doug said. “Don’t Fence Me In was the title of one of his movies. They didn’t have what you’d really call country music then, but he had more country hits than Bing Crosby had pop hits. There will be some more obscure things, too, and those are fun. We have a couple of real enjoyable things like ‘Hawaiian Cowboy’ and ‘A Gay Ranchero,’ which are movie titles from the ’40s. We started out with about 20 songs to choose from that we thought were interesting and fun.”
Ranger Doug said the members do all they can to keep shows fresh and new to them and to fans.
“There’s a lot of interplay that goes onstage that keeps it fresh for us,” he said. “We also rotate the material, and we don’t do the same show night after night—maybe a little bit more (of the same) in the case of the Roy Rogers tour, but there’s still plenty of flexibility. We take requests, and we feed off the audience; if someone says something funny or something strange happens, and we just roll with it. We always like to ad lib and be flexible. We like to play and we appreciate the fact that each of us does. Joey and Woody are brilliant improvisers, so there’s always some new musical candy you haven’t heard before.”
Each of the members of Riders in the Sky has a unique history. Fred LaBour (Too Slim) has a master’s degree in wildlife management from the University of Michigan, and was also a co-author of a satirical article about Paul McCartney that started the “Paul Is Dead” urban legend. Joey Miskulin (Joey the Cowpolka King) was a close friend of polka legend Frankie Yankovic; he formed a professional relationship with Yankovic when Miskulin was just a teenager. Paul Chrisman (Woody Paul) has a doctorate in physics from MIT. Ranger Doug has a master’s degree in literature from Vanderbilt University. In fact, he recently read his way through 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.
“Too Slim got me this book, 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, for Christmas one year. He knew I liked to keep a list of books, and I said, ‘I have a master’s, and I’ve read most of these things.’ Well, no,” he said with a laugh. “I had only read 249 of them. It became somewhat of a mission to knock them all down. I’m glad I did, because I’d never read any Charles Dickens before, except for A Tale of Two Cities. I ended up getting a whole lot of Dickens under my belt, and George Elliot; and I had read some of the hard stuff like James Joyce, but it was fun. Some of them I loved, and there were some new authors I found who were really fun, and some were like pulling teeth.”
The list includes four books by Thomas Pynchon, known for his unorthodox and confusing writing style.
“That’s a hard one to get your brain around. I fought that battle; yep, I sure did,” Ranger Doug said about the author’s works, with a laugh. “If I hadn’t been on this quest, I would have given up on it.”
Ranger Doug said it’s been a while since the Riders in the Sky went into the studio to record the group’s own works.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve done an album without a theme,” he said. “We recorded an inspirational album; we recorded an album with a symphony; and we recorded an album with Wilford Brimley, but we haven’t done just a regular Riders album in a number of years—an album where we mix our own tunes with stuff we’ve discovered, or the well-known stuff. … I’d like to do that again.”
“Riders in the Sky Salute Roy Rogers” takes place at 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 15, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $17 to $47. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.