The happy trails of yesteryear are back with a flourish, thanks to the Riders in the Sky.
The four-cowboy group has been playing together for decades, bringing the sights, styles and sense of humor of the Old West back to the delight of generations. The quartet rides into the Gallo Center for the Arts for two sold-out shows Sunday.
Formed as an acoustic underground group in Nashville in 1977, Riders in the Sky has built its career on playing an unabashedly nostalgic sound.
Founding member Ranger Doug, whose honorary stage titles also include “The Idol of American Youth” and “Governor of the Great State of Rhythm,” said their initial attraction to Western music was simple. “We were attracted to this music because it was very reminiscent of a big part of our childhood,” he said. “It’s a wonderful piece of Americana that shouldn’t be allowed to sit in a museum corner. It’s living, breathing music that people need to hear again.”
Joining lead singer and guitarist Ranger Doug are singer and bassist Too Slim, singer and fiddler Woody Paul and accordionist Joey the Cowpolka King. Ranger Doug said growing up in the 1950s and watching Westerns on TV and in the movies made a lasting impression on the band members. And while modern tastes may have veered away from songs about dusty trails and open skies, there’s a timeless appeal to the music.
“It’s just good music because it’s not about feeling sorry for yourself, cheating spouses, broken hearts,” he said. “It’s about the outdoors and singing songs with friends and running around on horses. There is a magnificent poetry to it and, as musicians, it’s really challenging music to play. You are singing and playing intricate chord changes. So it appeals to the musician in us, as well as the immature little kid in us.”
The music appealed to kids everywhere as well, as Riders in the Sky made it into the movies themselves, performing “Woody’s Round Up” for this Pixar hit “Toy Story 2.” The group won its first Grammy in 2001 for its album by the same name. Two years later, members won their second Grammy for their contributions to “Monsters Inc. – Scream Factory Favorites,” the companion CD to another animated Pixar film.
The group’s Gallo Center performance will be part of its annual Christmas tour. The Western classics and old-time comedy will be mixed with holiday favorites for a night of winter fun.
Ranger Doug said that while the music brings back fond memories for fans of a certain age, newer generations also have found the fun in the Old West.
“There’s lot of humor in the show,” he said. “People like to escape on horseback and forget the overdue mortgage and underwater house and surly teenagers. And kids, well, kids always love cowboy music with the big hats and loping rhythm. The lyrics make sense to a kid.”