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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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.

Published in Previews

There were two rules for Stagecoach 2013’s third day, spelled out on video monitors and texted to attendees who downloaded the Stagecoach app: Drink water, and find shade for your health and safety.

While water was supplied by vendors and free refill stations, shade is limited at the Empire Polo Club.

The official sponsor of Stagecoach—Toyota—offered a bit of shade inside their exclusive tent on the right hand side of the “Mane Stage.” The Toyota tent became the “Toyota World of Wonders” this year, featuring an interactive vintage carnival theme, with a milk-jug throw, a ring toss and even a professional palm-reader—seated, of course, in a 2013 Rav4.

Over the weekend, Toyota revealed the brand new 4Runner model, which featured an acoustic performance in the Toyota World of Wonders from Dierks Bentley.

Around 1 p.m. on Sunday, the Budweiser Clydesdales—who made an appearance on El Paseo in Palm Desert earlier in the week—trekked through the lobby area of the festival, making their third appearance at Stagecoach.

“We enjoy a big crowd,” said Budweiser representative Dennis Knepp.

As far as finding shade was concerned, fans were finding it in the Mustang and Palomino tents.

Waddie Mitchell, a “cowboy poet,” offered a reading to a large group of attendees—some of whom sat with their backs turned, uninterested and conversing among themselves. I spotted one woman sleeping on one of the bales of hay. When he ended his 70-minute act, he said, “I think I’ll go start some supper now. Thanks for the ride.”

Riders in the Sky followed Mitchell at 3:50 p.m. Riders in the Sky’s performance at Stagecoach was their 6,419th performance over 35 years, as well as their third appearance at Stagecoach. The group’s performance had a diverse, interested audience of all ages, including children.

During the performance, Fred LaBour and the rest of the group performed solos—slapping the sides of their face making “clacking” noises. Paul “Woody” Chrisman dumped cornmeal on the stage and performed a fiddle solo while dancing on it.

The part of their performance that stood out the most was a cover of the theme to Rawhide, which had many of those in the audience singing and clapping along. Children in the audience got to hear “Woody’s Roundup” from the Toy Story 2 soundtrack, along with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”

In a way, the Riders in the Sky are the cowboy Rat Pack. Consider Douglas “Ranger Doug” Green’s vocals slightly echoing Frank Sinatra’s during “Trail Dust,” as well as the group’s comedy, which never stops during their performance.

Fans of John C. Reilly—known for his roles in Boogie Nights and The Aviator—were treated to the actor’s musical performance after Riders in the Sky (who took a few comedic shots at Reilly during their set). During sound check, Reilly addressed the large crowd who packed the front half of the Mustang Tent.

“It’s called a rolling festival sound check,” he said, gaining applause.

“I’m John Reilly, and these are my friends. On this hot day, so are you,” he said, before going into his first number. He played the guitar he used in the movie Walk Hard. People at the rear were slow-dancing, as if the Mustang Tent had been turned into a honky tonk. At times, it felt like a performance suited for A Prairie Home Companion. Nice job, John!

Mustang headliners Katey Sagal and the Forest Rangers took the stage around 10 minutes late. Sagal was yet another Hollywood figure performing at Stagecoach; she was a recording artist before becoming an actress in roles such as Peg on Married With Children and Gemma on Sons of Anarchy. The Forest Rangers have been contributors on the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack throughout its five seasons, with various vocalists.

A few Sons of Anarchy and “SAMCRO” T-shirts were scattered throughout the decent-sized audience, and as the Forest Rangers took the stage, Sagal was missing. The group performed alone with what they called “guest vocalists” at first. Through bluesy/southern rock performances of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” it seemed as if they were trying to shrug off a possible absence.

Sagal finally walked onstage to a deafening ovation. When she began to sing a cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” fans got to experience her magnificent singing ability. She then did a beautiful cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” and a cover of Steve Earle’s “Come Home to Me.”

She turned over the vocals to Curtis Stigers for a performance of “John the Revelator,” which was just as impressive as it was during the Sons of Anarchy season 1 finale.

While Sagal was obviously the major attraction, the Forest Rangers—along with their guest vocalists—were quite a sight to see, and it was a real treat for those who attended.

As Katey Sagal and the Forest Rangers were finishing up, a large crowd in the Palomino Tent was awaiting the Charlie Daniels Band, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Daniels and the band took the stage about 15 minutes late; to be fair, the sound check appeared to be quite extensive. For a man who recently had heart surgery, Daniels appeared to be extremely energetic. The Southern-rock icon was twirling his bow and playing a mean fiddle during their opening song, and seemed to joke with his guitarist by slapping him with it.

“I do believe it’s party time in the desert!” he said after his first song.

While Daniels’ performance was strong throughout, his scaled-back set contained two long instrumentals and left no time for Daniels to play his established hits. Daniels bragged that his current band was the best he’s played with, and while there’s no doubt that’s true, people seemed as if they were ready for the long guitar solos and repetitive bass lines to end. Nevertheless, Daniels’ performance included spectacular lighting, and there was no better way to close out the Palomino Tent for Stagecoach 2013 than with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

The Zac Brown Band closed out the Mane Stage and were the last act to play at Stagecoach for 2013. The band’s first song, “Keep Me in Mind,” was a delightful opener. Hearing some Americana, acoustic-driven country thrown into the mainstream Nashville sound that’s usually featured on the Mane Stage was a unique experience.

The highlight of their show was a cover of Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching,” which was something I didn’t expect, and it sounded wonderful when played with their signature sound. The Zac Brown Band was not as flashy as Toby Keith or Lady Antebellum, and the group had a more-laid-back approach. Instead, it was all about the music. It was another wonderful night for the Mane Stage, and a lovely conclusion to Stagecoach 2013.

Despite blistering temperatures, fans enjoyed the three days of the most unique country music festival in the United States. It’s the only place where you will see Americana, bluegrass and alternative country, as well as groups like the Honky Tonk Angels Band, plus actors and actresses performing country music, and the thundering sound of modern Nashville mainstream—all in one place.

Photos by Erik Goodman

Published in Reviews

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.

Published in Previews

Stagecoach always features many of the biggest names in country music on the main stage, but the festival also offers a broad variety of artists within country music’s subgenres: Americana, alt-country, folk music, the “California sound” and some sounds that can’t quite be described.

Here’s a list of performers whose names appear in smaller print on the Stagecoach poster, yet they are great performers in their own right. Whether you’re roaming around the Empire Polo Club trying to find something different, or you’re looking for something in between performances on the main stage, here are some performers for your consideration. (And passes are still available.)

Friday, April 26

The Haunted Windchimes: This five-piece folk group from Pueblo, Colo., has a distinctive sound; they don’t define themselves as Americana, country, blues or bluegrass—but one still manages to hear all of those styles in their music. This is a band that has perfected the art of harmonies, and have written beautiful songs of redemption; I guarantee they will reassure you that the Americana sound is alive and well. They have performed on Prairie Home Companion and have a faithful following within the country-music underground that makes them one of this year’s Stagecoach bands not to miss.

Hayes Carll: Hayes Carll is what you get when you mix the writings of Jack Kerouac, the outlaw anthems of Waylon Jennings, and a bit of the softer sounds of Neil Young. An artist in the Lost Highway stable, he’s recorded some eccentric tunes that have made him popular across the music spectrum. He’s not afraid to sing about the dark places that were once popular in the outlaw-country days, in songs such as “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” He also does a very nice cover of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” He made his first Stagecoach performance in 2008 and has also performed at Bonnaroo and SXSW. He’s a delight for country fans who also appreciate rock music and/or eccentricity in songwriting.

Old Crow Medicine ShowOld Crow Medicine Show: This old-time string band was discovered busking on the streets of Boone, N.C., by Doc Watson’s daughter, and it’s been a hell of a ride ever since. After performing on Coachella’s main stage in 2010, they’re now making their first appearance at Stagecoach. They have also performed at the Grand Ole Opry, been an opening act for both Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, made an appearance at the 2003 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Their song “Wagon Wheel”—co-written with Bob Dylan and later covered by Darius Rucker—will bring a tear to your eye.

Saturday, April 27

Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants: Most country-music fans wouldn’t think that Chris Shiflett, who plays guitar in the Foo Fighters, would be appearing at a country-music festival. On an interesting note, Shiflett has been known to sit in with the Traveling Sinner’s Sermon at Slidebar in Orange County that consists of Charlie Overbey of Custom Made Scare, Steve Soto of The Adolescents, and Jonny “Two Bags” Wickersham of Social Distortion. “Chris writes from the heart and sings his guts out, and I really respect that,” said Overbey via e-mail. “Chris is obviously a great rock guitar player in Foo Fighters and his prior bands, but it takes real versatility to front his country band, and he does it easily with style and grace.”

Honky Tonk Angels Band: According to the band’s MySpace page (who still uses MySpace?), they’re from the Inland Empire, so they’re a semi-local band playing a major country-music festival, which is always a nice surprise. When I scrolled through the band’s general info and saw that they answered their “sounds like” section with, “A drunken, Dixie fried roadhouse knife fight set to music,” I couldn’t help but to give them a listen. Sure enough, that’s exactly what they sound like … and it sounds awesome; they sound like an edgier, non-jam band version of The Black Crowes. I’m curious to see how they perform live, and how they interact with the audience, but I don’t think there’s much to worry about.

Justin Townes EarleJustin Townes Earle: When one hears the names “Townes” and “Earle,” one thinks country legacy. Justin Townes Earle is the son of troubadour Steve Earle; his father gave him the middle name of “Townes” in honor of Townes Van Zandt. Justin Townes Earle doesn’t have the same type of left-wing-themed songs as his father, and instead has his own unique style that melds rockabilly, Americana, ’50s rock ’n’ roll and early folk music. Like his father, Justin has had problems with addiction, but has seemingly put them behind him. His voice has soul, and you can feel the emotion.

Sunday, April 28

Katey Sagal and the Forest Rangers: Jeff Bridges and John C. Reilly aren’t the only well-known actors performing at Stagecoach. Katey Sagal is best known for playing Peg on Married With Children and currently has the role of Gemma on Sons of Anarchy, but she actually started in the music business as a backing vocalist in the ’70s, and sang with people from Bob Dylan to Gene Simmons of KISS. It’s no surprise that she has been singing some of the songs that have appeared in various Sons of Anarchy episodes, including a cover of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” and Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” The Forest Rangers have also played on some of the cover songs on Sons of Anarchy, most notably the cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimmie Shelter” with Irish vocalist Paul Brady.

Riders in the Sky: Riders in the Sky are another group returning to Stagecoach from the 2008 lineup. They formed in the late ’70s and are purists of the early country-Western style similar—but they aren’t afraid to include some comedy routines in their act. Bassist Fred “Too Slim” LaBour is credited by Rolling Stone as being mostly responsible for the “Paul (McCartney) is dead” rumor that turned into an urban legend after publishing a satirical piece while he was attending the University of Michigan. This trio has performed several times at the Grand Ole Opry, once had a children’s television show, and contributed “Woody’s Roundup” to the Toy Story 2 soundtrack. This is one performance that can be enjoyed by the entire family.

Charley Pride: Charley Pride is one of the best-known names in country music—and he’s also one of the few African Americans in country music. He originally intended to become a professional baseball player and even played for the Boise Yankees, once a farm team for the New York Yankees. After a stint in the Army and an arm injury, he abandoned his baseball career and started his music career. Pride struggled during the early years of his career due to Jim Crow laws; his early recordings were never released with pictures of him. In 1967, he became the first African-American performer to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. He is one of country music’s most well-respected and influential performers; this is definitely a great experience for anyone who wants to experience a performance by a legend.

Published in Previews