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23 Apr 2013

Have Some Western With That Country: Riders in the Sky Head for Stagecoach

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While Stagecoach is known for showcasing a wide variety of alternative-country, traditional country and Americana, there’s still plenty of room for the Western music of Riders in the Sky, who will be making their third appearance at the festival, taking place April 26-28.

The group’s lineup—Ranger Doug (Douglas B. Green), Woody Paul (Paul Chrisman), Joey the Cowpolka King (Joey Miskulin) and Too Slim (Fred LaBour)—has never changed and has remained more or less intact since their founding. When the group came together in the late 1970s in Nashville, Tenn., they decided to wipe the dust off the Western music sound that was pioneered by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Throughout their 35-year career, they have become the first “exclusively Western” music artists to join the Grand Ole Opry, and the first Western music artists to win a Grammy (they’ve won two, in fact). They have performed at Carnegie Hall and the White House, and have 36 albums to their credit.

In other words, they have arguably reached heights higher than the people who influenced them, which is impressive for group playing a genre of country music whose time has long since passed.

“It’s been a long and wonderful ride,” said Ranger Doug in a recent phone interview from Nashville.

While the group’s focus has always been on Western music, they’ve never been afraid to produce a few laughs during their performances, too. “It was just sort of homegrown and organic. We all thought we were fairly funny guys and enjoyed cracking each other up,” he said. … “The things that cracked up the audience, we kept in the act. Suddenly, we became known for the comedy as much as the music.

“It’s been a good combination over the years. It gives us two different audiences and entertains as much as it preserves the music.”

They have also been known for being entertainers to children. The group’s self-titled TV show on CBS replaced Pee-wee’s Playhouse in 1991, after Pee-wee Herman’s indecent-exposure arrest. They also recorded “Woody’s Roundup” for the Toy Story 2 soundtrack, which led to the group recording two of their five children’s-themed albums for Disney’s music label.

“We didn’t start out to entertain children. We still don’t think of ourselves as a kids' act, per se, but people were bringing their children to the shows. It’s been a big part of who we are. The kids have always loved the outfits. There was something about cowboys where everyone wanted to be one for a while,” he said.

“Now kids want to listen to rap. Maybe (cowboys) will come back.”

Riders in the Sky keep busy with touring and have performed more than 6,000 shows. When Ranger Doug looks back on their grueling tour schedule, he simply takes it all in stride.

“You lose sleep sometimes, but there’s not an act out there that doesn’t, I suppose. It’s just part of the business,” he said.

Along with lack of sleep, there are other downsides. “There are definitely days when that hour and a half onstage is the happiest hour and a half that you have, but we don’t have plans to slow down, and we love doing it.” 

The future is bright for these hard-working, yodeling cowboys. They have a new album titled Home on the Range coming out in two weeks; it’s a collaboration album with … Wilford Brimley?

Wait. What? When I asked if Ranger Doug meant the Cocoon actor and the subject of several Internet memes spoofing his diabetic-supplies commercial, Ranger Doug said yes and assured me of Brimley’s talents.

“He’s actually quite a good singer!” he said.

When it comes to the group’s third Stagecoach performance, Ranger Doug said he is happy to be coming back.

“It’s great that they save a corner for the traditional Western music. I think that’s a tip of the hat to where our music came from. We’re honored every time (Goldenvoice asks) us. It’s just means a lot to us that we’re allowed to come out and keep our traditional sound alive to entertain some people, and maybe some kids too while we’re at it,” he said. 

Riders in the Sky play on Sunday, April 28, at Stagecoach. The festival takes place Friday, April 26, through Sunday, April 28, at the Empire Polo Club, 81800 Avenue 51 in Indio. Passes for all three days start at $239. For tickets or more information, visit www.stagecoachfestival.com.

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