Kids might not mount a horse, yell out “Yah!” and ride into a sunset. But, if only for a blip of childhood before shiny new technology takes hold, cowboys can be the cool kings of imagination. “Kids are always going to love cowboys,” says Douglas B. Green, aka “Ranger Doug” of Riders in the Sky. “There’s just something about the rhythm, the look and, in our music, the lyrics. Kids don’t know about broken hearts. They know about getting on a horse and riding around the West.”
NOTE: Can localize with where next appearing Kids might not mount a horse, yell out “Yah!” and ride into a sunset. But, if only for a blip of childhood before shiny new technology takes hold, cowboys can be the cool kings of imagination. “Kids are always going to love cowboys,” says Douglas B. Green, aka “Ranger Doug” of Riders in the Sky. “There’s just something about the rhythm, the look and, in our music, the lyrics. Kids don’t know about broken hearts. They know about getting on a horse and riding around the West.” Riders in the Sky has built a three-decades-and-counting career from blending original compositions written in cowboy- and Western-music style with genre standards. It’s Pixar’s band of choice whenever the animation house needs that cowboy sound. The quartet touts itself as the sole Western-only group to take home Grammy awards, a total of two for children’s albums related to the Pixar projects “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters, Inc.” But this quartet isn’t only aiming for youngsters enamored by the cowboy mystique. Since debuting Riders in the Sky with Fred “Too Slim” LaBour and former member “Windy” Bill Collins, Green has helped stir plenty of adult memories for entertainment grown from the great outdoors. “(Western music) is a kind of folk music, very complex in the way jazz can be a folk music,” Green says. “It preserves the beautiful, poetic lyrics and a celebration of the West and the outdoors. To write in that style is really rewarding because you’re helping to keep alive a tradition that would become static, or just become strictly nostalgic, without current creative input.” Riders in the Sky will bring its traditional tunes, along with a silly sense of humor, to Sangamon Auditorium on Friday, with holiday numbers tossed in for “Christmas the Cowboy Way.” (And because all good cowboys should ride with a sidekick, they’ll be joined by “camp cook” Side Meat.) “Even if people have seen the show before, our humor will be something weird, something different, ad-libbed or improved,” Green says. “Even we never really know.” In the early 1970s, Green worked a day job at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame to support singing everything from Dixieland to cowboy songs on the weekends. After seeing the Sons of the Pioneers, a cowboy group originally founded in 1933, sing at a 1974 Western-music festival, Green was blown away. “I really had not paid much attention to them since I was a kid, but I thought that was just priceless music that shouldn’t be allowed to die,” Green says. Green, who has a master’s degree in literature, dove into research about Western singers and groups of the glory days. (Much later, Green would pen two books on the subject, the more-academic “Singing in the Saddle” and the coffee-table book “Singing Cowboys.”) He also performed as a Nashville solo act with his guitar and yodel-ready voice. But when it came to the music’s trademark harmonizing, Green was a lonesome cowboy. “Nashville, like many communities, has an acoustic musical underground with all the players who like old-time music,” Green says. “These players tend to find each other wherever they are.” Green knew LaBour (a bassist) and Collins from their work in pop/country singer Dickey Lee’s backing band. Tabbed to fill in one night for a sick singer, Green decided he’d give them a call. “I asked Fred, ‘Do you want to play some cowboy music this coming week?’ He said, ‘Sure, but I don’t have a hat.’ Well, I had an extra hat, he played the string bass and that was that.” The trio laughed for days after a “pretty darn ragged and spotty show,” but that November night in 1977 started something too appealing to not continue. Dates in local folk clubs and listening rooms picked up over the next few months, as did the buzz about Riders in the Sky. “It was about August 1978 that our respective employers started to look askance at us and say we had to commit to one thing or the other,” Green says. Collins opted to stick with Lee, while Green, LaBour and fiddling newcomer Paul “Woody Paul” Woodrow Chrisman came aboard for what Green admits was a “wild chance” at a career. Since then, Riders in the Sky has rousted a fourth member for its posse — accordionist Joey “The Cowpolka King” Miskulin — and corralled any number of accolades and accomplishments. They’re members of the Grand Ole Opry, six-time winners of the Western Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award and has become, in the words of Billboard magazine, “one of the most historically significant acts in the history of American music.” They’ve performed more than 5,000 shows, appeared about 300 times on TV, and, in perhaps their widest exposure, three Pixar feature films. “Pure blind luck” is how Green describes the band’s invitation by Pixar to record “Woody’s Roundup,” a theme song for Sheriff Woody’s old-time TV show as seen in “Toy Story 2.” “Randy Newman wrote the song, but if you’ve heard him sing, it certainly doesn’t sound like a 1950s TV theme,” Green says. “When we were asked, we looked at each other for one-eighteenth of a second and said, ‘Yes.’ ” They’ve since contributed tunes to “Monsters, Inc.” and last year’s “Cars,” and are hoping to be asked back for “Toy Story 3,” tentatively scheduled for 2010. “The people at Pixar just love what they do, creating top-quality stuff that’s enchanting, and that’s sort of what we do,” Green says. “Approach it with passion, humor, love and do it well. It’s a good match.” In the meantime, Green will continue hosting Classic Cowboy Corral, a weekly XM satellite radio show. And along with a busy 2008 tour schedule that will see Riders perform with the Boston Pops and Nashville Symphony Orchestra, the band hopes to complete two records: an album of ultra-traditional cowboy songs like “Streets of Laredo” and “Green Grow the Lilacs”; and a fan-requested album of Western spirituals like those written by former Sons of the Pioneers leader Bob Nolan. “It’s not only great fun for us to play together,” Green says, “but we’re preserving this unique music or, as we call it, bringing good beef to hungry people.” Nick Rogers can be reached at 747-9587 or email@example.com. Read his blog, Unpainted Huffhines, at blogs.sj-r.com/unpaintedhuffhines. BREAKOUT Riders in the Sky: “Christmas the Cowboy Way” WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday WHERE: Sangamon Auditorium at the University of Illinois at Springfield TICKETS: $26; available at the auditorium ticket office, by calling 206-6160 or online at www.sangamonauditorium.org.