Riders in the Sky do Christmas the cowboy way

by Ryan Snyder

Boy howdy: Riders in the Sky recall the age of the singing cowboy at the Carolina Theatre. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

There were no strobe lights, fireballs or epic guitar solos, but the performance by Riders in the Sky at the Carolina Theatre Friday night was still one of the more gratifying of the season. Hundreds of buckaroos and buckarettes young and old (mainly old) saddled up for an evening of Western-flavored Christmas favorites and cowboy classics, as the throwback quartet played the 5,438 th show of their 32-year career. Though they postdate the height of the singing cowboy by decades, Riders in the Sky admirably carry on the traditions of greats like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry year-round. It’s their extra-special Christmastime performances, however, that are capable of sending even the most enfeebled octogenarian into a swirl of Ovaltine-fueled nostalgia.

The quartet consists of Ranger Doug, the archetypal heroic cowboy figure on guitar, with his sidekick and founding member Too Slim, a smaller, bespectacled man with a voice like Willie Nelson, on upright bass. Rounding out the Riders is a pair that might pass for the comedic relief from the Golden Era of Westerns, with the tall, slender Woody Paul on fiddle and the short, squat Joey, the “Cowpolka King,” on accordion. His mildly operatic tenor made for excellent contrast with the crisp and airy vocals of Woody Paul, whose slow-witted stage persona belies the genius-level intellect underneath. Before the group ever formed, Paul Chrisman completed his PhD in theoretical plasma physics at MIT, but he’s not the band’s only brainiac. Both Ranger Doug and Too Slim hold masters’ degrees in literature and wildlife management respectively.

With a stage decorated by a campfire, cactus with Christmas lights and a cattle skull with a Santa hat, the evening opened with an a capella rendition of “Jingle Bells” before “Harmony Ranch” introduced their buttery-like-warm-biscuits instrumental tone. The first taste of the group’s humor came on the heels of a Too Slim cheek-slapping solo, who was soon chastised by Ranger Doug because he was supposed to “play a bass solo, not a face solo.”

The humor wasn’t going to have anyone rolling in the aisles, though some in the house might have broken a rib simply by breathing too hard, but the yucks were consistent all night. One of the funniest moments came when the Riders mentioned being the only exclusively Western act to win a Grammy award, of which they won two. Ranger Doug described being crammed in the green room with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Eminem and multitudes of other stars. “We was the only ones we never heard of,” remarked Woody Paul with a hint of perplexity. Both of their awards came in support of separate Pixar productions, including one on Toy Story. The fact that both came in conjunction with work on two Pixar productions only serves to illustrate the illegitimacy of the Grammy, particularly since decades of luminous work by Asleep at the Wheel and Bob Wills never once garnered a sniff.

Originals like “Wah-Hoo” and “Corn, Water and Wood” worked nicely with traditional numbers “Rawhide” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” but the show’s real impact came from the holiday material. Golden-voiced takes on “Silver Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” tugged at the heartstrings just as much as their self-deprecating humor touched funny bones. They made a compelling case that all Christmas songs are based on the old chestnut “Let It Snow” by referencing nearly a dozen songs in less than three minutes to the well-known melody before compelling the audience to recall the Golden Age of Television. “There used to be three channels and plenty of stuff to watch,” said Too Slim before the Riders took on “Rawhide.” “Now there’s 120 and nothin’.” The Riders rode off into the sunset with a sweetly-harmonized “Happy Trails” as the crowd headed back out into the cold, but undoubtedly a little warmer and fuzzier than before.