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Mr Lucky
Music Reviews

Sing Cowboy Sing
Riders in the Sky

We imagine at some point the Riders in the Sky made some sort of Faustian deal with the devil. All three gentlemen were extremely talented but we know that is not enough (and perhaps even a hindrance) for making it in the music business. Everyone must have been drunk and the deal with devil was that the Riders could make money at playing music but few would take them seriously, despite their talent, experience and taste. And they'd have to be more popular with children than adults.

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The Riders in the Sky have been playing Western music (as opposed to Country & Western) since the late 1970s. Their most obvious influences have been the Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry and Bob Wills. They tend to play vintage music or write their own. Each plays his instrument well, if not great, and each poses a gorgeous voice that is elegant without being fussy. And each brings something unique to the group. The leader, Douglas Green is known as Ranger Doug. It's a campy, fun moniker but it makes it easy to not take him seriously as a musician, and this is a real mistake. He has the prettiest voice (and the best yodel) and writes some great songs. Fred LaBour will spend his life known as Too Slim. He's a natural ham and his comfort in front of an audience is probably a large part of the reason this group has been so successful. Woody Paul is the jazziest. His violin can play sweet or hot. His voice is the least distinct of the trio but it's also the most sincere. Woody Paul is one of the great under-rated songwriters of our time as well.

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We've been casually listening to the Riders in the Sky off and on since their second album, the seminal Cowboy Jubilee. Our proximity to a good number of young folks, still in diapers, has brought the group back into our sphere. Among the tots, the Riders are closely associated with the Toy Story series of movies thanks to the lead cowboy character. We have heard a lot of music geared towards the kids and Riders in the Sky is a very welcome addition to any collection.

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The problem is how does one take seriously the music of three, now middle aged, men dressed in loud shirts and furry chaps who play more county fairs than nightclubs? Our advice: Don't think about it too much! The Riders in the Sky manage to respect the very music and aesthetic they're gently poking fun at. If you have even an iota of interest in this particular form of Americana, we hope you'll get one of these recordings or at least stop by the bandstand at your county fair when the Riders in the Sky are onstage.

Recordings: Rounder

Three On the Trail
Rounder CD102
1980

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The debut of the Riders in the Sky is a pleasant recording that only hints at the heights to come. Suprisingly, it's the original numbers Three on the Trail and Here Comes the Santa Fe that surpass the tried (and sometimes tired) standards like Don't Fence Me In and Cielito Lindo.


Track Listing
1. Three on the Trail
2. (Ghost) Riders in the Sky
3. That's How the Yodel Was Born
4. Don't Fence Me In
5. Blue Montana Skies
6. When Payday Rolls Around
7. Cowboy Song
8. Sky Ball Paint
9. Blue Bonnet Lady
10. Cielito Lindo
11. Here Comes the Santa Fe
12. So Long Saddle Pals

Cowboy Jubilee
Rounder CD 0147
1981

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Cowboy Jubilee was our introduction to Riders In the Sky and in many ways, it's been a hard album to top. The original songs are melodic and poignant, while the covers offer something new. The Riders prove that they can show respect and clear admiration for the Cowboy style while occasionally poking fun at it. What's so great about Cowboy Jubilee is that the fun poking is very subtle. Singing Back in the Saddle is funny enough without having to embellish it with corny jokes.

Along with the cowboy anthems like Ride With the Wind and At the End of the Rainbow Trail, Cowboy Jubilee features some great storytelling songs. Compadres in the Old Sierra Madre and Desperado Trail (both by fiddler Woody Paul) are compelling tales about being on the wrong side of the law while Ol' Cowpoke is Too Slim's clever portrait of a cowboy on a Saturday night. All three songs could border on the precious but they don't.

The Riders have used the Sons of the Pioneers as a source of inspiration and here they attempt Bob Nolan's On the Rhythm Range, a jazzy number that is perhaps a little ambitious. The harmonies and "jazz" sound forced.

We feel there is a defining moment on Cowboy Jubilee when the Riders in the Sky go from a cute country version of the Manhattan Transfer to something brilliant in its own right. Douglas "Ranger Doug" Green's yodel and final falsetto note on Gene Autry's Back in the Saddle Again is so clever and beautiful that you almost have to laugh. How can a yodel affect one so? With respect to the great Gene Autry, this new version is the definitive one.


Track Listing
1. Cowboy Jubilee
2. Compadres in the Old Sierra Madre
3. Desperado Trail
4. Soon as the Roundup's Through
5. Ol' Cowpoke

6. Back in the Saddle Again
7. Red River Valley
8. Ride With the Wind
9. Riding Alone
10. At the End of the Rainbow Trail
11. On the Rhythm Range
12. Ojo Caliente


Prairie Serenade
Rounder Records
1982

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After the thrill of Cowboy Jubilee, this third album is bound to disappoint.Prairie Seared and Nevada are both strong new songs but there is a thinness to the whole album that makes it less than compelling.


Track Listing
1. Prairie Serenade
2. Jangle Jingle Jingle
3. Blue Shadows on the Trail
4. Pretty Prairie Princess
5. Cowpoke
6. Nevada
7. Down the Trail to San Antone
8. I Ride an Old Paint
9. Utah Trail
10. Old El Paso
11. Chasing the Sun
12. Home on the Range


Weeds and Water
Rounder CD 1038
1983

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In the liner notes, group leader Doug Green sounds almost apologetic about this disc. He feels it's not quite ready for prime time. He's wrong! It's relaxed without being sloppy, a talent we've yet to learn. The songs are mostly covers that the Riders probably have known for years but at this point hadn't done a million times.


Track Listing
1. Cool Water
2. West Texas Cowboy
3. La Cucaracha
4. Streets of Laredo (The Cowboy's Lament)
5. Singing a Song to the Sky
6. Tumbling Tumbleweeds
7. Pecos Bill
8. That's How the Yodel Was Born
9. Wasteland
10. Bound to Hit the Trai
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Live
Rounder Records
1984

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We've always suspected that live albums are usually a sign of artistic burnout, or at least the need for a break to replenish talent. This is a fine album, showcasing both music and humor, but most of the songs have been done before or since and we suspect the Riders in the Sky were at a career crossroad at this point.


Track Listing
1. Cowboy Jubilee
2. Yodel Blues
3. When Bloom Is on the Sage
4. After You've Gone
5. Cowboy Song
6. Hold That Critter Down
7. Cielito Lindo
8. The Last Roundup
9. I Grab My Saddle Horn and Blow
10. Blue Bonnet Lady
11. When Payday Rolls Around
12. So Long Saddle Pals


New Trails
Rounder Records
1986

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Allright. We confess. We've never heard this album. This was the Riders' attempt at mainstream contemporary country and we've never been compelled to give it a try. Maybe we're missing something and if we find it used, we'll let you know.


Track Listing
1. Cimarron
2. Trail of Tears
3. I'm Satisfied With You
4. Even Texas Isn't Big Enough Now
5. Slow Poke
6. Blue Bonnet Lady
7. Cowboy of the Highway
8. Any Time
9. All Those Years
10. Soon as the Roundup's Through


Saddle Pals
Rounder Records
1987

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This is their first album geared towards the little ones and while it's excellent, it marks the departure of really great adult music for quite a few years.


Track Listing
1. The Old Chisholm Trail
2. Get Along Little Dogies
3. Sweet Betsy from Pike
4. I'm Going to Leave Old Texas Now
5. Clementine
6. Biscuit Blues
7. There's a Great Big Candy Roundup
8. The Cowboy's ABCs
9. "One, Two, Three" Said the Miner
10. Down the Lullaby Trail -
11. Fiddle Medley
12. Yippie-Yi-Yi and Away We Go


 

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Recordings: MCA

The Cowboy Way
MCA Records 1987

 

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This is a nice but nonessential live set featuring mostly songs previously recorded on Rounder Records. The audience is introduced to the Riders' humor and it's kept to a minimum. Their cover of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys' Miss Molly is nice, but otherwise this record is not essential.


Track Listing
1. Texas Plains
2. Back in the Saddle Again
3. Riders in the Sky
4. Carry Me Back to the Lone Prairie
5. Mr. Sincere (State Fair Burnout)
6. Concerto for Violin and Longhorns
7. Lonely Yukon Stars
8. The Salting of the Slug
9. When Payday Rolls Around
10. My Oklahoma
11. Reincarnation
12. Miss Molly
13. Ridin' Down the Canyon
14. That's How the Yodel Was Born
15. Happy Trails


Riders Radio Theater
MCA MCAAD 42180
1988

The Riders and comedy are an odd pairing. They can be very funny but mostly they are amusing and quite often horrible, in a Hee Haw kind of way. This type of comedy is not without its charms but it's nothing compared to real talent the trio posseses. With so much schtick, it would almost seem as if the Riders in the Sky were trying to make up for a lack of talent. This isn't the case. Nonetheless, we consider these recordings with MCA Records the "dark years" as far as musicality is concerned.

This record is a mix of comedy sketches (mostly commercials, an obvious favorite) and songs with the emphasis on the former.


Track Listing
1. Scene, The
2. Riders' Radio Theme
3. Chant Of The Wanderer Theme (reprise)
4. Udder Butter On A Rope
5. Trail Traffic Report
6. Cattle Call
7. Bio Feedbag
8. Trail Traffic Update
9. Call Of The Wild
10. Triple X Stock Report
11. Sundown Blues
12. Riders' Radio
13. Pops
14. Saddle Whiz
15. Meltdown On The Mesa
16. So Long Saddle Pals
17. Long Shot, The


Riders Go Commercial
MCA Records MCAAD 42305
1989

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All would be forgiven if this were actually funny. Unfortunately it isn't. There are only a handful of songs and lots of Hee Haw humor. And we mean lots!


Track Listing
1. Board Room, The
2. Accordian Repair Course
3. Studebaker
4. Udder Fantastic
5. Side Of Opera, A
6. Perfume, Passion And Polka
7. Queen Elizabeth Trio, The
8. Polkaholism (P. S. A.)
9. Cow Paint And Body Shop
10. Along The Navaho Trail
11. There's A Blue Sky Way Out Yonder
12. Geezer Training Course
13. No Rodeo Dough
14. Riding The Old Front Range
15. Ride With Me Gringo
16. Toolkit In A Holster

Horse Opera
MCA Records MCAAD 42338
1990

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Of all the MCA albums, this is one is actually almost very good. There is still too much comedy but at least it's musical comedy as opposed to pure sketch. Ride Cowboy Ride is the only flag-waver but the real strength are the ballads like Texas Echo and Call of the Canyon.


Track Listing
1. Ride Cowboy Ride
2. Maybe I'll Cry Over You
3. Texas Echo
4. Slocum Intro
5. What Would I Do Without You?
6. Arms Of Love, The
7. Homecoming Yodel
8. Call Of The Canyon
9. Drywall Intro
10. Livin' In A Mobile Home
11. Line Rider, The
12. Sidemeat Liner
13. Sidekick Heaven
14. Somes Got To Do It


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