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Posted Jun 13, 2012, 11:59 am
The band Riders In The Sky are the keepers of the flame for Western music.
Starting in the 1920s with the advent of radio, this early form of authentic American music was called Country and Western music. The Western aspect of the music, immensely popular in the 1930s and '40s, exemplified by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers, gradually became more marginalized as American culture shifted after World War II. Today, there are plenty of Country radio stations, but no purely Western stations, except as specialized shows or on the internet.
That hasn’t stopped Riders In The Sky in their crusade to keep traditional Western music alive. For 35 years, on radio, television, Grammy-winning albums and in more than 6,000 live performances, they have celebrated Western music. Their homage is performed sincerely and accurately, though they also recognize the camp of nostalgia for a Western lifestyle that never really existed outside of movies.
“We do it tongue in cheek without mocking,” said Douglas Green, whose stage persona is “Ranger Doug, the Idol of American Youth.”
Overdressed in classic movie cowboy attire, the quartet includes Green on guitar and vocals, “Woody Paul, the king of the Country Fiddlers” (Paul Chrisman), “Too Slim, the Man of a Thousand Hats” (Fred LaBour) on upright bass, and “Joey, the Cowpolka King” (Joey Miskulin) on accordion.
Western music embraced a jazzier swing feel, now largely absent from Country music. It evolved out of Texas and Oklahoma in the 1930s and took the nation by storm through the “Singing Cowboy” movies. The style also embraced plaintive folk songs, such as “Red River Valley” and “Strawberry Roan.”
“A lot of it is the imagery,” Green said. “Western music is more or less about the West. You can have a love song, but it’s generally in a Western setting.”
Green literally wrote the book on the singing cowboy. Despite his glib on-stage persona, he holds a master’s degree in English literature and is the author of “Singing In The Saddle: The History of Singing Cowboy” and a follow up, “Singing Cowboys.”
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Admittedly, the singing cowboy was creature of fiction, an idealized notion of the vanishing Wild West.
“There’s a whole back story to it,” Green explained “in the sense that the image of the cowboy and his guitar out on the lone prairie was there in popular fiction. In the book 'The Virginian,' the character sings a tune and in the original silent movie, it shows him singing a bit. It was just an image that was part of popular culture already.”
Gene Autry’s singing cowboy first appeared in 1934’s “In Old Sante Fe.” It was quickly followed by movies like “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Sagebrush Troubador,” “Melody Trail” and “The Singing Vagabond,” all released in 1935.
“A lot of rough, tough people who like the rugged West image didn’t get it at all,” Green said. “I don’t think anyone expected it to become the phenomenon it did when Gene Autry took off. But the kids and the women just loved him. It started a whole genre.”
Success inspired lots of imitation.
“Every studio had to come in with a cowboy who sang,” Green noted “Warner Brothers had Dick Foran, Universal had Bob Baker, Grand National had Tex Ritter. Republic got so popular with Gene Autry that they brought in a second singing cowboy, Roy Rogers.”
The jazzier feel of Western music was influenced by the swing music of big bands in the 1920s and '30s.
“My guitar style is just old big band swing-style,” says Green. “It’s what Freddie Green (no relation) would have played with Count Basie. It fits the music perfectly, it gives it that bounce and lift.”
Ironically, the tempos and chord structures of Western music, with its ninths and minor sixths, are cousin to Europe’s gypsy jazz, including the popular Quintette du Hot Club du France.
“Swing was just coming on strong when the singing cowboy genre was created,” Green said. “So you had these brilliant songwriters like Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer in the Sons of the Pioneers, who were wordsmiths and poets. Yet the music that they were hearing and influencing what they were creating was Swing.
“When the Sons of the Pioneers were hiring, they decided three guys playing rhythm guitar wasn’t cutting it. So they went out and got the Farr Brothers (Hugh and Karl) who were grooving to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. So this whole Swing influence comes in. A lot of the songs were written by professional songwriters who wrote Swing music as well,” he said.
Riders In The Sky are about celebrate 30 years as members of the Grand Ole Opry. Their music has been featured in the “Toy Story” movies. Chrisman, who holds a Ph.D in physics, was recently inducted into the National Fiddler’s Hall of Fame. The band just completed recording a set of Western standards for national distribution through Cracker Barrel restaurants.
“One thing that I love about playing Western music and performing and creating it is it tends to be pretty positive music. It’s not about broken hearts or feeling sorry for yourself, or getting drunk, except in rare cases,” he laughed. “In general, it’s really uplifting, positive music."