Riders in the Sky
An interview with singer Ranger Doug
by Tina Hall
Since 1977 the American Western band Riders in the Sky has entertained fans of all ages by continuing a style made famous by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and others. The lineup includes Douglas B. Green, Paul Chrisman, Fred LaBour and Joey Miskulin. Together they have made countless television appearances over the last thirty years and appeared at The Grand Ole Opry 700 times. Their work was featured in “Toy Story 2” as well as Pixar’s short “For the Birds.” Their tireless efforts to keep Western music alive have gained them much praise. Billboard’s Jim Bessman has called them one of the most historically significant acts in the history of American music, while The Board of Directors of the organization National Day of the Cowboy has named them one of eight recipients of it’s 2011 Cowboy Keeper Award. The band’s newest album The Land Beyond The Sun showcases their talent for inspirational music.
Maximum Ink: Can you tell us a little about yourself and where you are from?
Ranger Doug: I was born at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Lake County, Illinois and grew up mostly in Michigan where my parents were from but also in California and Massachusetts, high school in Michigan, college at University of Michigan and graduate school at Vanderbilt University.
MI: Were you a fan of the Cowboy culture as a child? Why do you think most children love cowboys so much?
RD: Very much so! My California years coincided with the tail end of the ‘singing cowboy’ era. And, there were plenty of cowboys on that newfangled marvel of television, not only network shows like “Roy Rogers,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Gene Autry,” but local shows with cowboy singers like “Town Hall Party.” There were still westerns in the theaters, and I heard my very first live western band at Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County, California. I heard a lot of cowboy and classic country music before and after that as well, since my uncles and mother all sang the old songs and my Uncle Hank and Uncle Arvid played guitar…and Arvid yodeled! I think kids relate to cowboys and westerns because not only is there plenty of action and plenty of outdoor adventure, the songs aren’t about broken hearts and cheatin’ women but instead [...] the outdoors and the fun life of the cowboy.
MI: How did Riders in the Sky get it’s start? What genre would you classify it in?
RD: We got our start November 11, 1977, as a last minute fill-in at a little watering hole for a folksinger who got sick and had to cancel. We knew we had something very special going that very first night and wanted to pursue it and see how far it might take us.We couldn’t have dreamed how far it did. Genre? Western, I guess.
MI: Do you feel honored to carry on a tradition made popular by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers?
RD: Certainly. These guys were heroes to us starry-eyed kids in the 1950s and when we see that look in kids’ eyes after our shows we know just how it feels and feel like we are carrying on something very special that was almost lost. Having gotten to know both Gene and Roy is much more than a dream come true.
MI: How do you think the industry has changed most since the ‘70s?
RD: Change is inevitable and like it or not it’s gonna happen. I’m happy for the successes in the younger generation, but we don’t really pay a lot of attention. We have found our niche. We love it and continue to be creative within it. There are many, many people out there hungry for western music and comedy, so we continue to work and create and have fun.
MI: Do you ever worry that cowboy culture will become obsolete? Do you enjoy having the chance to introduce the style to tomorrow’s generations?
RD: I don’t think cowboy culture will ever become obsolete. It is far too ingrained into America’s image of what we are to ever go away. Will Paul Revere become obsolete? No, and neither will the Sons of the Pioneers. Of course, it will become part of history, but we feel there will always be young people coming along and discovering the west, western music and western culture. We feel particularly honored and blessed to have introduced two generations of kids to the wonder of this style and to carry the torch.
MI: Did you like having your work featured in “Toy Story 2” and “For The Birds”?
RD: A thrill, an honor, and a nice paycheck.
MI: What is it like to have appeared on so many television shows?
RD: You get pretty used to makeup.
MI: When you first began your career did you ever think you would play the Opry 700 times? What does it feel like to perform a show there?
RD: It is still a huge huge thrill, every time, to broadcast our music around the world on America’s most legendary radio show and to stand on the stage where Hank Williams, Ray Price, Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Ernest Tubb and all the rest stood and sang.
MI: Do any of you ever get stage fright?
RD: The last time I got stage fright was when Roy Rogers and his son Dusty showed up at a show we did in Victorville, California. I just about couldn’t talk.
MI: What do you like to do in your free time?
RD: I used to say spend of much of it as I can with my kids, these days it’s with my two granddaughters. I enjoy reading, a lot, and exercising at the YMCA, something I do on the road as well. My wife and I love to take walks at Radnor Lake, a semi-discovered treasure here in Nashville. I enjoy following my dad’s favorite team, the Detroit Tigers in the summer.
MI: Are you excited to see the inspirational album released?
RD:Yes, our fans have begged for it for years, and I’m glad we finally got it done. Very proud of it.
MI: Why do you think inspirational music mixes so well with Western?
RD: I don’t think anyone can spend much time in the west, with the unbelievable abundance of natural splendor and majesty it contains, without thinking about a higher power and a bigger picture. The great western songwriters [Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer, Stuart Hamblen] also composed scores of inspirational songs as well.
MI: What projects are you looking forward to next?
RD: Not sure. We have plenty of road dates way into 2012 and have two CDs in the can and almost finished, so we will put them out as we finish them up. One is a regular Riders album, that is a mixture of original songs and western classics, and one is a set of cowboy folk songs from the early days.
MI: How do you hope to be remembered when you’re gone?
RD: Guys who believed in a tradition so strongly they kept it alive until it bloomed and thrived again.
MI: Anything to say in closing?
RD: Always drink upstream from the herd.
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