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Into a New Era at Full Gallop

Grammy-nominated Riders in the Sky are still singing strong after almost 25 years in the business.

February 21, 2001|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Queen of the West Dale Evans joined her husband Roy Rogers in that singing cowpoke roundup in the sky just two weeks ago, many aficionados of western music lamented the end of a golden era. Truly, could it get any sadder for fans still smarting from the deaths of two other legends--Gene Autry in 1998 and Rex Allen in 1999?

But the curtain isn't being drawn on western music just yet. The genre's still in good hands as long as the Riders in the Sky are around to continue spreading the word.

In fact, 2000 was a magical year for lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Ranger Doug, upright bassist-vocalist Too Slim and fiddler-vocalist Woody Paul, who celebrate their 25th anniversary together next year.

Tonight, the Riders will find out whether they take home either of two Grammy awards they're vying for: country duo or group performance with vocal for "Woody's Roundup," from "Toy Story 2"; and children's musical album for "Woody's Roundup Featuring Riders in the Sky." Both collections were released by Walt Disney Records.

"Things couldn't be any more exciting than they are for us right now," Ranger Doug (real name Douglas B. Green) said by phone recently from a hotel in Baltimore. "We've never been nominated for a Grammy before, so it's a heck of a thrill. It's something we've always wanted. Honestly, we don't have much of a chance in the best country performance category, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed for our children's album."

In addition, at the 12th annual International Western Music Festival in Arizona last November, the Riders were named vocal group of the year by the Western Music Assn. (WMA). Ranger Doug also was among the finalists for male performer of the year.

The group's future looks to be just as bright. The singing cowboys will appear in director Steve Goldmann's Imax film coming in June titled "Twang," a 45-minute documentary--told from a child's perspective--that features most prominent and influential artists from both fields of music: country and western.

Right now, though, Ranger Doug said the Riders--who are touring with adjunct member Joey the Cowpolka King (a.k.a. accordion virtuoso Joey Miskulin)--are purely focused on bringing this timeless and pure acoustic music to a new generation of young whippersnappers in live shows.

"[The death of] Dale certainly points to the passing of an exciting and romantic era, no doubt about it," he said. "On the other hand, we've never surrendered to nostalgia. This is a living tradition, one that's still vital and moving forward with no foreseeable end in sight."

To target an audience of children isn't a great leap for the free-spirited Riders, who once hosted a CBS-TV Saturday morning kids show. They've always peppered their concerts with dollops of goofball antics, one-liners and an assortment of props, among them saddles, electric campfires and their signature saguaro cactus.

"You have to be a kid at heart to want to put on flashy, rhinestone clothes, yodel and participate in all of the goofy exchanges that we do," Ranger Doug said. "There definitely is something immature about that. We do work very hard at our musicianship, but at the same time, crazy comedy and having fun is also a part of who we are."

Riders in the Sky were roped into "Toy Story 2" by one of its co-directors, Ash Brannon, a longtime Riders fan.

"Randy Newman had written this great theme song ['Woody's Roundup'], only he doesn't really sound like a singing cowboy, does he?" Ranger Doug said. "So the producers sent us Randy's demo, which we thought we could put our stamp on with our yodeling and harmonies and what-not. We did our thing, sent it back [and] they loved it."

When an impressed Jay Landers, the senior vice president of A&R at Disney Records, suggested they do a complete album, the Riders were suddenly high in their saddles. Based on the idea of Woody starring in a long-forgotten, black-and-white, cowboy-themed children's TV program, "Woody's Roundup Featuring Riders in the Sky" features 13 songs including the Ranger Doug-penned "Jessie, the Yodelin' Cowgirl," "How Does She Yodel?" and "One, Two, Three, Said the Prospector."

"It was a lot of fun," said Ranger Doug, who lived for three years in Costa Mesa in the mid-'50s. "When you're doing something specifically for kids, it becomes easier in a way to write because you have these specific characters and situations in mind. Plus, you know there aren't gonna be any big, sweeping ballads. How many kids do you know who will listen to yucky stuff about falling in love or getting your heart broken into a million pieces?"

Regardless of whether the Riders gallop home with a Grammy or two tonight, surely Dale Evans, Roy Rogers and the rest must be smiling.

"Early on in our career, when we were uncertain about how those we admired felt about what we were doing, Dale was very appreciative of us," Ranger Doug said. "That support meant a great deal to our confidence."

"When we called to offer our condolences, Dusty [Roy and Dale's son] said that his mom and dad were so proud of us for keeping their name out there," he added. "I couldn't believe it when he said that there's this new generation that doesn't know who Roy and Dale were. That kind of blows me away, because besides my mom and dad, as far as I knew, Roy Rogers was the first person that ever existed."

SHOW TIMES

Riders in the Sky play Sunday at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 71 Fortune, Suite 39, Irvine Spectrum. 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. $15 to $30. (949) 585-9000.

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