Riders In The Sky: Always In The Saddle
Introduction, interview and photos by Daniel Coston
For nearly 35 years, Riders In The Sky have carried on the traditions of original country and western music, while marking out their own place on the musical map. With 700 Grand Ole Opry appearances, movie soundtracks and over 6,000 shows performed by the time you read this, Riders In The Sky are to today’s western music what Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters were to first generation Americana music. Night after night, from albums to CDs, this Nashville quartet has been the living, touring embodiment of western music, and the ones that have helped to keep this music in the here and now.
Made up of guitarist Ranger Doug, fiddler Woody Paul, bassist Too Slim, and accordionist Joey The Cowpolka King (who also produces the band’s records), Riders In The Sky are also to many kids through their work on the Toy Story soundtracks, and two Grammy winning children’s CDs. However, any band that proudly endorses the slogan, “Always drink upstream from the herd,” shows that there’s a little something there for kids of all ages.
Along with their annual shows at Tweetsie Railroad, the band recently made a stop at the Old Time Threshers Reunion in Denton, NC, which is where I talked to Ranger Doug.
Tangents: When did you first start traveling to North Carolina?
Doug: We first started playing in North Carolina some thirty years ago. We’ve always enjoyed playing here. It honestly ranks as one of the best states for us to play in. The folks in this state have always had a fascination with cowboy music, which has benefited us.
Tangents: Do you think that the fascination is due to the fact that the cowboy landscape is something different to the people in this state? That it seems a bit exotic to us?
Doug: Yes, to a degree. But folks in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, even, haven’t responded to western music the way that this state has. The state of North Carolina has always has the most fascination with western music. I really don’t know why.
Tangents: How do you guys come up with material? Do you find songs together, or separately?
Doug: That’s a three-pronged answer. One, we write our own songs. All three of us write. Second, we introduce classic cowboy songs into the set. Woody just picked a song for us to play that we’d known forever, we just had never learned it. The third is when we have a project. We’ve been writing for a new project, which is an inspirational album, which we’re going to start recording next week. People have been asking us to record an inspirational album for some time, and we’ve been putting it together.
Tangents: Is it easier to write for a project, as opposed to on your own?
Doug: Yes, it is. It was easy to write for the Disney album we just did. The characters were already laid out for us, and we had a really good time.
Tangents: You’ve been doing your own show on cowboy music for XM. How has that been to do?
Doug: Great. We were just in the XM offices yesterday, and the guy that runs a couple of their channels told us that Willie Nelson had just been in there, and he wants our show to be on 24 hours a day! There just aren’t enough shows to do that.
Tangents: How do you put those shows together?
Doug: We usually record three of four of those shows at one time, at [producer] Joey’s studio. It takes at least an hour to record the introductions, and edit them. The recordings depend on when we can fit them into our schedule. We discuss tunes what tunes we’d like to play, and then we make a CD of those songs, so that I can have them on my computer. It sometimes takes us a few different takes to get the introductions, as we sometimes mess up a word, or something else. We leave a lot of the goofs in the show, if it wasn’t too bad.
Tangents: Which sometimes give the show some of its character. You know that you’re really listening to you guys talking about the music.
Doug: That’s true, and we want that in the show.
Tangents: Has the way that people discover you guys changed with technology? Are more people discovering you via the internet, or records, radio or TV?
Doug: It has always been a word of mouth thing. Radio helps, when we can get it. The Disny movies have helped,TV appearances do help. Basically, its still people seeing us, and telling their friends, “You’ve got to see this.”
Tangents: Where are you recording your new album?
Doug: In Nashville, where we live. We were going to record in Nashville this paast May, but we got flooded out. We weren’t home at the time, our wives had to deal with that. I made a reference to that during our afternoon show, and nobody in the crowd got it. A lot of jokes are like that!
Tangents: Have you gotten to explore some of the more famous music spots throughout the Southeast?
Doug: Not much. People mostly assume that we got to do a lot of sightseeing. We see the highway, we see the hotel room, we see the venue, and move on to the next place. It’s not always a glamorous life. We did recently get to visit this radio station in Virginia that Flatt & Scruggs played at for a couple of years, and met with the crew. But mostly, it’s getting to the next show.
Tangents:Tonight’s show is show number 5,964 for Riders In The Sky. How in the world do you keep up with that?
Doug: When you start it with show number one, you just count up from there! It’s been 35 years, coming up on 6,000 appearances and counting, its more and more amazing as it goes along, and we’re very thankful for that.
My thanks to Greta Lint and the Old Time Threshes Reunion for helping to set up this interview.