Western Music and Comedy Group
"That's one way to do it, but it's not The Cowboy Way" - Ranger Doug
"...one of the most historically significant acts in the history of American music..." - Billboard magazine
Imagine a barbershop quartet
made up of four lanky Western versions of Garrison Keillor
dressed in snazzy cowboy garb, armed not with six-shooters
but musical instruments, singing authentic cowboy songs interspersed with comedy routines. Now in your mind's eye you should have a good picture of my experience of this wonderfully entertaining group at the Strawberry Music Festival
I sat on the grass, watching and listening delightedly to these four latter-day horsemen of the musical apocalypse, laughing and singing along. All that was missing from the scene was a Blazing Saddles campfire and the beans. I've rarely had so much fun listening to Western music. It was a revelation.
Now that I've covered the overall impression, let's get down to brass tacks. They've been around for a long time. Okay, not as long as the Rolling Stones, but long enough if you think 30 years is a while. Originally, the group was a trio; "Ranger Doug" (Douglas B. Green), "Woody Paul " Paul Woodrow Chrisman, and "Too Slim" Fred LaBour. Later, during the '90s, "The CowPolka King" Joey Miskulin joined them, and the stage was set for a highly popular and successful ensemble, who have mastered both live public performance, radio television and film, in addition to 30 albums (that's one a year. folks!)
Their backgrounds are as diverse as can be–"Ranger Doug" Green has a Masters degree in Literature and continues a career as a music historian when he's not playing guitar and yodelling; "Woody Paul" Chrisman is a theoretical phycisist and applied fiddler, with a Ph.D. in theoretical plasma physics; "Too Slim" LaBour's Masters degree in Wildlife Management is of dubious assistance to mastery of the double bass. Finally, "The CowPolka King" Miskulin is the band's producer and master of the "stomach Steinway", better known to mortals as the accordion.
Since their first perfomance in Nashville (where else?) they have gone on to do over 5400 live concerts (in all fifty states and overseas), 300 television appearances (with celebrities such as Daffy Duck), 700 appearances in the Grand Ole Opry, and 200 radio shows, including several of their own (Rider's Radio Theater and Ranger Doug’s Classic Cowboy Corral).
Awards were almost inevitable. Their album Cowboy Jubilee was both Best Independent Country Album of the Year and on the New York Times' Best Ten List for 1982. Saddle Pals was the Best Independent Children's Album of the Year in 1987, Always Drink Upstream from the Herd rounded up the 1995 Cowboy Hall of Fame Wrangler Award for Outstanding Western Recording, and finally, Woody's Roundup: A Rootin' Tootin' Collection of Woody's Favorite Songs was a Grammy Award Winner: "Best Musical Album For Children" in 2001, followed in 2003 by another for Monsters, Inc. Scream Factory Favorites.
A full list of their accolades is available on their website, but includes the Western Music Association’s Hall of Fame, the Country Music Foundation’s Walkway of Stars, and the Walk of Western Stars. They have been the Western Music Association’s Entertainers Of the Year seven times, and won the Traditional Group of the Year and Traditional Album of the Year over and over. They have twice been named "Western Group of the Year" by the Academy of Western Artists, and have won the Wrangler Award statuette from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum on three occasions.
What is the deal with cowboy yodelling?
Real cowboys play guitar, maybe the fiddle. They ride horses and dress up when they can. The Riders do all of this and more. Brilliantly. Not just cowboy songs either, but a range that incorporates Western Swing style in their own special way. On stage, they are full of life, yet tender and heartwarming. Did I mention that they are comic geniuses too? Well, they are. Well-practiced their routines may be, but each is as fresh as a daisy and funny, yet respectful of a genre of music popular through such greats as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Despite gently poking fun at the musical cowpokes, they play with sincerity whether their songs are old standard favourites or homespun. I recognised many of their songs ("Cool Water") being the one that stands out from their set, though there were many others.
They appeal to children too, as evidenced by songs and whole albums written and performed for kids. They asked for young volunteers to come up on stage for a number, a request that packed the stage from tots to teens, all eager to do things "The Cowboy Way". The results were spectacular - the kids joined in, sang along, and to the great credit of the highly varied audience (the festival is about all music, not just the Country& Western genres), the grownups sang and clapped and laughed along with everyone else. The band clearly enjoyed themselves too, and there were plenty of wisecracks interspersing the song, levels of humour gauged to perfection both for little'uns and grownups.
It's the humour that defines them. And their undoubted musicality. And their polish. Gentle pokes at one another were almost constant, and their many and various skills were ever present, from accordion sound effects through yodelling and musical face-slapping. Musically, they are brilliant, and worth seeing or listening to for that alone. Add a dimension of comedy and they complete something unique and fresh and above all, hugely and memorably entertaining. I'm still baffled as to the way in which yodelling became a part of the Cowboy Way, but I'll leave that question to answer another day. Meantime, Riders, may the horse be with you for another thirty years.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dv-faHqmiVM&feature=related - Woody's Roundup featuring the boys