As someone who doesn't (and doesn't know anyone who does) listen to traditional Western music, I've never really known what to think about Riders in the Sky. I mean, their motto - or at least the one emblazoned at the top of their concert posters - is "bringing good beef to hungry people," for crying out loud. Also, they've spent a sizable chunk of their collective career, especially as of late, playing music for children and call themselves by nicknames like Too Slim and Ranger Doug. That might make them hard to take seriously. But then I spent some more time listening to this band and realized that, more or less, you don't have to take them seriously. They're as much of a comedy troupe as they are a musical act.
Then again, that's not totally accurate either, because this quartet, which has been playing music and touring for almost 35 years with its original lineup, is perhaps the best preservationist Western music left today. And by Western music, we're not talking about country or bluegrass or any other twangy style that one might, and quite understandably so, associate with musicians in cowboy hats - this is Western music. This is the style that Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry could be heard singing in their 1930s and '40 films as they galloped along dusty, lonesome trails.
While it was Rodgers and Autry that brought this style into popular culture, the style had actually existed, in one form or another, for the better part of a century. Western music, influenced by a bevy of other styles ranging from traditional folk music to the Mexican-flavored sounds of the American Southwest, became the soundtrack to the lives of those whose families had migrated to the rough-and-tumble West. The songs almost exclusively deal, as one might expect, with daily life for a cowboy and those who hang out with cowboys. But then the music industry got involved and, as that group of people tends to do, screwed things up. By creating the more convenient "country and western" genre, traditional Western sounds went out of style in favor of more rock and country influenced sounds.
So, that's a brief history of the genre and where Riders in the Sky come in is in the way they've become one of the last true Western acts still touring. Sure, there are others, but very few of those stick to the genre as tightly as this band has for the past four decades. In fact, Riders in the Sky are the only traditional Western act that has won a Grammy. And they've actually won two of them. Again, this is valuable because, while we hear tastes of Western music in unexpected places like indie rock these days, Western music, in its traditional form would be nearly exctinct without bands like this.
These road warriors have also attracted a younger fan base thanks to their inclusion on the soundtracks to Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc. They've also appeared alongside the purple dinosaur Barney. How's that for reaching out to a new audience?
Where Riders in the Sky excels (and where they've been succeeding for all these years) is in their live show, which, again, provides a valuable history lesson in addition to giving people plenty of tasty sounds to which they can tap their toes. You'll also have a good laugh at some of their jokes about bulls and dusty trails and all that sort of stuff. After all, they're bringing the "good beef" to all you hungry people. Eat up on this musical knowledge.
Riders in the Sky
8pm Thursday, October 13.
Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St. $34/advance, $39/day of show. Tickets available at towertheatre.org or the Tower box office. All ages.