Riders in the Sky bring their Western sound to Dollywood festival

May. 23, 2014 @ 06:42 PM

The heyday of singing cowboys ended decades ago, but you still can trace Western influences in contemporary country music.

“To a much-diluted extent,” said Douglas B. “Ranger Doug” Green, lead singer and guitarist with the Western group Riders in the Sky. “Toby Keith still wears a cowboy hat.”

Riders in the Sky will perform May 26 and 27 at Dollywood as part of the theme park’s Barbeque & Bluegrass festival, which runs May 24 through June 8.

Green’s group has been performing professionally since the late 1970s, when he teamed up with singer/fiddler Paul Chrisman, whose stage name is Woody Paul; and singer/bassist Fred LaBour, otherwise known as Too Slim.

A few years later, the Riders were joined by accordionist/arranger/producer Joey Miskulin. “We call him the new kid,” Green said, with the group’s trademark wit. “He’s only been with us 26 years.”

Riders in the Sky pay tribute to the Western musical tradition with a humorous stage show and a repertoire featuring songs by cowboy greats like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. “And hopefully, we add to the tradition by writing in the style,” Green said.

The Nashville-based group has released dozens of albums. Its broadcast work includes “Riders Radio Theater” and, in the early 1990s, a television program that CBS broadcast on Saturday mornings.

The group’s trademark, apart from the flamboyant cowboy costumes, is intricate harmony singing. It’s a sound that recalls the legendary Sons of the Pioneers, whose music inspired Green to start the Riders.

“The band slowly coalesced around my desire to sing this old music,” Green said. “I’d gotten to know a number of the old singing cowboys, and I fell in love with the harmony and the incredible lyrical scope of the Sons of the Pioneers.”

Green, who wrote the 2002 book “Singing in the Saddle,” about Western music, said the genre was “huge” in the 1940s.

“Gene Autry was just back from the war and making movies, and Roy Rogers was king of the cowboys,” Green said. “Tex Ritter had number one records and was a movie star as well.”

Cowboy music gathered influences from many sources, Green noted. “It drew from Irish melodies, Celtic melodies, blues, mariachi,” he said. “Once Hollywood got into it, there were some excellent pro songwriters.”

Western music no longer receives coequal billing with country music, as in “country and western,” Green acknowledged. Even so, he said, it is “one branch on that great tree of country music,” a genre that “draws inspiration from everywhere – Cajun, bluegrass.”

Riders in the Sky were invited to join Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1982. “We had guested there 25 times, so it wasn’t entirely a surprise,” Green recalled. “It’s an act that provided some humor and that was not in competition with anyone else on the show.”

Green has high praise for Dollywood’s Barbeque & Bluegrass festival, whose sprawling lineup includes the Time Jumpers, featuring Vince Gill; and bluegrass legends the Seldom Scene.

“There’s such a limited number of places, as time goes on, to find live music,” he said. “To walk around the park and hear four different bands in an hour – that is a service to humanity.”