An Interview with Riders in the Sky

Jan 27, 2017

Riders in the sky are a cowboy quartet that sing classic Westerns. But the group is best known for lending their vocal stylings to two beloved children's classics: Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc., which they earned two Grammys for. Tonight they'll be singing at the Donald C. Bedell Performance Hall at Southeast's River Campus. KRCU’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Ranger Doug the group's lead singer before tonight's performance.


Lewis-Thompson: Riders in the sky are linked to one of the most iconic children's movie franchises-- Toy Story. You all performed Woody's Roundup in Toy Story 2. What was that experience like?


Ranger Doug: It's a very funny story is how it came to be. And they decided that Woody's show when he if you remember in Toy Story 2 and Jessie and [Stinky] Pete the Prospector to show him the TV show he used to be a star of, and it all comes back to him. And they decided that show needed a musical theme. So Randy Newman writes all the music for the show for the movies. And he wrote this little theme song, which is very clever. And they listen to it and said okay well now we have to find somebody to sing it, because that's not going to go. You know the way he sings--"Woody's Roundup right here every day " you know. So fortunately one of their producers a young man named Ash Brannon was a fan. He said I know just the guys let me download some yodeling. And so he did and they all sat around and their eyes got big and they said "those are the guys." So they called us up asked us if we'd like to perform a song in the new Toy Story movie and we thought it over for an eighth of a second and said "YES!" [laughs]. The day we recorded it was pretty intense. It was or maybe intimidating. Everyone was very friendly, but John Lasseter the head of Pixar was there and the head of Disney Records was there, because they had signed us to do the two albums that ended up winning Grammys. And a host of L.A. types who had some function I don't know of in the Disney organization and lawyers and Randy Newman was there, and all the while were trying to work this song out [laughs]. It was "WOW" that was intimidating, but it worked out great.


Lewis-Thompson: I was listening back to it the other day and the harmonies are so in sync. And one of my favorite parts and the part that kind of always sticks out to me is the yodeling. How did you all manage to get that yodel so in sync?


Ranger Doug: Well we just have worked together a long time. Even at that time we had and we just know how each other's voices go. And I came up with the weird little yodel and which is different than just about any we've ever done. And Woody and bless his heart was able to match it perfectly singing one above and that was you know it was just one of those fortuitous accidents that happened that worked out great, because we know each other so well.


Lewis-Thompson: And with those names you have Ranger Doug as yourself Too Slim, Joey the CowPolka King and Woody Paul. How did you all come up with those names?


Ranger Doug: Woody Paul the king of the cowboys fiddlers. Well Woody's real name is Paul Woodrow Chrisman, and he he just thought that was too hard to spell and too complicated. So he changed it to Woody Paul. Joey the CowPolka King his real names Joey Miskulin. He is a god in the polka world and toured for many years and recorded and won Grammys as a producer for Frankie Yankovic. He has that a whole set of credentials behind him, so he wanted to get a little more cowboy image. And so that's how he became the CowPolka king [by] combining cowboy music and polka music. And Too Slim his real name is Fred, and he didn't think that was as cowboy as it ought to be. So he kept seeing the Ed Too Tall Jones doing commercials. He's a football player. And he said well if he's too tall, well I'm too slim. He said he's now evolved into just right. And Ranger Doug is a combination of my two childhood heroes, which was Sheriff John on Los Angeles television where we lived for a while and the Lone Ranger of course.


Lewis-Thompson: What keeps you all going after almost nearly 40 years together? What's your secret to your longevity as a group?


Ranger Doug: Well what keeps us going is I still have a kid in college and so does Slim. So we've got to keep working. I think you know the dedication to keeping the music alive. I mean it we said it before in this interview but it's just it means a lot to us. Were hams you know. We love to be on stage and entertain. We like making people laugh and we like introducing this music to a new generation as well as reminding people of our age that this isn't some of the music that they grew up with that their mom and dad used to sing and they would see it in the movies occasionally although this is the end of the era at that point in the 50s. And the beginning of another era that has not a lot to do with Western music. But we're we're out there. We're keeping it going. It's not going to die yet.


Lewis-Thompson: Well how have you all managed to keep the integrity of Western music while bringing in a new generation of followers and fans?


Ranger Doug: I think our dedication to it borders on insanity. And I think we are just determined to keep this music alive because if you think of the American musical experience as a pie graph you know we have a small slice of that pie just the same as Cajun and blues and bluegrass and all the other smaller musical forms that make up the incredible American spectrum.


Lewis-Thompson: And then the next thing is obviously you all are coming here to Cape Girardeau. You're going to be performing at the Donald C. Bedell Performance Hall at the River Campus. What can people expect to see from the show? I know there's going to be lots of comedic surprises [and] a lot of wonderful music.


Ranger Doug: Well you've just about got it in a nutshell. That's what we do. Make comedic surprises and try to play wonderful music. We'll have a selection of classic songs you know from the movies and such that people will remember like "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Riders in the Sky" and others like that "Don't Fence Me In." We'll have a few on this tour not so many a few original songs in that style. This tour we're celebrating our our new album. I should say the album celebrates Roy Rogers king of the cowboys and the tour supports the album. It's doing very well. And so we feature songs from Roy Rogers career. And talk a little bit about him and we have some movie clips to show of Roy in his prime with Gabby and Dale Evans and Trigger. And so it's you know it's kind of a multimedia thing and plenty of humor plenty of you know people will go home feeling good.


Lewis-Thompson: And I cannot not let you go without asking you one little thing.


Ranger Doug: Yes.


Lewis-Thompson: Would you mind singing the song that defined many a good childhood, Woody's Roundup?


Ranger Doug: Oh I can give it a try. I haven't warmed up but here goes. Woody's Roundup, right here every day. Woody's Roundup, come on it's time to play. There's Jessie, the yodeling cowgirl [yodeling]. Bullseye, he's Woody's horse. Pete the old prospector and Woody the man himself. Of course, it's time for Woody's Roundup. He's the very best. He's the rootinest, tootinest cowboy in the wild wild west. Woody's Roundup.