Horseback harmonies

Riders in the Sky offers bunkhouse music and antics done ‘the cowboy way’

ROPE-A-DOPE Some of fiddler Woody Paul’s rope tricks work better than others. This one is laughingly called “the anaconda.”

ROPE-A-DOPE Some of fiddler Woody Paul’s rope tricks work better than others. This one is laughingly called “the anaconda.”

photo by Tom Angel

Riders in the Sky
Laxson Auditorium, CSUC, Friday, Dec. 14

Riders in the Sky gives the appearance of being a jokey, easygoing group of cowboy musicians who like nothing more than to have fun while singing and playing a bunch of hokey tunes, and to some extent that’s just what the group is. But, as a packed-house crowd in Chico’s Laxson Auditorium discovered last week, this is one of the most finely honed acts in existence. It’s fresh, it’s funny, its musicianship is superb, and it’s as tight as a brand-new boot.

When it comes to entertaining, these guys aim to please.

The three Riders—lead vocalist Ranger Doug; bassist, vocalist and all-around wit Too Slim; and fiddler and singer Woody Paul—have been together for more than 24 years, and Joey “The CowPolka King,” who accompanies them, has joined them onstage for over a decade. After all this time together and more than 4,400 performances, 200 national television appearances, three television series and dozens of albums, Riders in the Sky has its act together. What makes the group so wonderful is that it manages to keep each show fresh, as if it’s being performed for the first time.

That was evident from the get-go Friday night. Bounding on stage dressed in festive Western wear, the group joked about how glad it was to be in Chico, “the home of our guru, Sourdough Slim.” It was a reference, of course, to Rick Crowder, who’s carved out a nifty career as a one-man version of the cowboy yodeling and polka playing that’s a mainstay of the Riders’ shtick. Before the show was over, Sourdough Slim’s name would come up three or four times, always fondly.

The show was divided into two parts, the first a selection of Christmas-themed material, the second a range of traditional cowboy fare. Rhythm and timing are everything in an act like this one, and the Riders always kept things moving. They segued seamlessly from funny tunes like “The Christmas Yodel” to such lovely ballads as “Corn, Water and Wood,” a gorgeous Southwestern song that spotlights the group’s silky harmonies.

Between songs come comic patter and surprises, like the sudden disappearance of Too Slim and subsequent appearance of “Side Meat,” the group’s grizzled “chuckwagon cook,” who launched into “Phantom of the Chuckwagon,” a hilarious parody of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Phantom of the Opera.

And so it went, moving swiftly from song to song, joke to joke, filled with so many bits of business, from rope tricks to sly barbs among the musicians, that you couldn’t catch them all, and always inviting the audience to feel part of the goings-on. The show’s first half closed, in fact, with a lilting version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in which everyone joined in. It was beautiful.

In the second half, the group did a seven-song medley off its recent Grammy-winning children’s album, Woody’s Roundup, then stopped the music to take questions from the audience—mostly from kids, as it turned out. The questions were terrific ("How do you play so good?” and “Can I have a kiss?"), and the performers were right on top of them, bantering and joking and even, in Too Slim’s case, running into the audience to buss a little girl.

Brought back by a standing ovation, the group did a singalong of "Happy Trails," ending with a medley of hymns and carols and a poignant prayer for peace and protecting Mother Earth. Even after 2.3 million miles on the road, the Riders still have the magic. As they like to say, "May the horse be with you."