I must have been 10 or 11 years old when my parents took me to the Lied Center for the Performing Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska to see what remains to this day one of the most incredible acts I’ve ever experienced.
I remember the stage containing an up-lit campfire made of flickering orange cellophane, a tall plastic cactus, and tumbling tumbleweeds that looked like they were pulled straight from a Yosemite Sam cartoon. These props were carefully arranged in front of a gorgeous painted backdrop featuring the kind of desert sunset into which Gene Autry or Roy Rogers (not to mention John Wayne & Clint Eastwood) would have proudly ridden at the end of any of a dozen iconic films.
Four colorfully dressed cowboys complete with ornately embroidered pearl-studded shirts along with impressive hats, chaps & boots walked out on stage and introduced themselves as “Ranger Doug, the Idol of American Youth”, “Woody Paul, King of the Cowboy Fiddlers”, “Too Slim, the Man of a Thousand Hats” and “Joey the Cowpolka King”.
It seemed a little weird, over-the-top, and out of place for the early 1990s… But even as an essentially suburban kid with no special affinity for cowboys or “Western” themes, my imagination was instantly captured.
Then they picked up their instruments and started to play.
These guys weren’t – to borrow a relevant term – all hat and no cattle. They were each incredible performers! As if it weren’t enough to have technical mastery over their instruments, their vocals relied on complex four-part harmonizing, flawless intonation, crystal clear tone, and it all fit together seamlessly. Their show was punctuated with genuine comedy… And yodeling. And lasso tricks!
They called themselves “Riders in the Sky” and I was impressed.
Listen for yourself:
The first time I saw them perform, they’d been playing together for 15 years… And that was about 20 years ago. They’re still touring today and I’ve had the great fortune of seeing them a few times since, most recently, two weeks ago on my birthday during my first-ever trip to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Their show was just like I remembered it… Only better.
After 7 years of music school, and another 7 in the “real world” working professionally in music and film, they’re still one of the best acts I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing. Everything I loved as a kid is still there, but now I also have a much deeper understanding of their musicianship and the writing, skill, and rehearsal time that went into the wit and humor of their presentation. Take my word for it. They’re fantastic.
But they are getting old, so I hope you get a chance to see them in concert before they retire (assuming, of course, that you like going to shows that are fun and awesome).
Riders in the Sky occupies a very specific niche in American culture. They have spent the last 36 years playing together, keeping a unique musical and storytelling tradition alive. They’re a whimsical throwback to the Cowboy movie and radio serials of the 30s and 40s, if not strictly accurate to the music of the 1880s that those old shows romanticized. They’re really not like anything else that exists today.
And while they are probably a bit too obscure for most people to know by name, I’m betting that you’ve actually heard Riders’ music before – perhaps without even realizing it.
Do you like Pixar movies? If you do, then you may already know exactly who I’m talking about. Riders in the Sky won a Grammy in 2001 for their work on “Toy Story 2” and another in 2003 for the music to the short film, “For The Birds”, which aired before Monsters Inc.
Riders in the Sky is a timeless testament to perfected craft and dedication to an old artistic tradition… And in the interminable age of the hipster, that’s refreshingly unironic.
In this humble artist’s opinion, life is way too short to pretend to like things just for the sake of signalling to other people how cool you are.
There’s little better than watching exceptionally talented people who genuinely love what they’re doing performing live on stage, no matter how niche the idiom. I suspect that we all have a few things that we like that aren’t mainstream, or hip, or even on anybody else’s radar. But as an adult getting to revisit something I enjoyed as a kid, Riders in the Sky provides a great reminder that it’s ok to toss aside any concern for popularity or other people’s opinions and simply love the things you love for the sake of what they are and what they mean to you. It’s your life to enjoy, make the most of it.