Riders in the Sky gallop high with Toy Story 2 success
In a wonderful, touching scene from the Disney/Pixar movie Toy Story 2, Woody — the cowboy puppet voiced by actor Tom Hanks — learns for the first time that he came from a line of tie-in merchandise from a short-lived TV series. His eyes widen in astonishment as he watches a telltale videotape, in which a marionette version of himself stars in a 1950s black-and-white Wild West kiddie show called "Woody's Roundup."
Toy Story 2 director John Lasseter says he wanted "Woody's Roundup" to begin with "an old retro cowboy song that introduced all the characters, like the TV theme songs used to." Composer Randy Newman wrote one for him, but when it came time to record the song, Lasseter called upon the acknowledged masters of old-time cowboy songs, Riders in the Sky.
"They're probably the best in the world at the classic cowboy sound," says Lasseter. "From the fiddling to the accordion to the stand-up bass, their harmonies are incredible. And they even came to the recording session dressed in furry chaps."
For their part, Riders in the Sky were extremely pleased to provide music for the Pixar puppet. "Working with him in the studio was a thrill," recalls Riders bassist Too Slim, "because unlike a lot of the animated cowboys, he is a real guy. And," Slim adds slyly, "he would go out for an adult libation after the show with us."
Formed in 1977, Riders in the Sky is neither a country band nor a country-western band. They are, very specifically, a western band — no hyphenates about it. The outfit's core trio consists of bassist/comedian Too Slim ("The Sharpest Wit in the West") singing lead and harmony; guitarist/fiddler (and self-described "Idol of American Youth") Ranger Doug singing lead and baritone; and Woody Paul ("King of the Cowboy Fiddlers") singing lead and tenor. The group is often augmented by a fourth musician, Joey Miskulin ("The Cowpolka King"), whose colorful accordion stylings and multi-instrumentalist talents have been featured on albums by everyone from Roy Rogers and Johnny Cash to Paul McCartney and U2.
Miskulin also produced the Riders' new Disney Records release Woody's Roundup featuring Riders in the Sky, which includes new music inspired by Toy Story 2. It's the Riders' 23rd full-length release.
The group's notable previous recordings include 1998's A Great Big Western Howdy!, for which they transformed "The Ballad of Paladin" (the theme song from the classic TV series "Have Gun Will Travel") into a witty blast of grammatical gamesmanship titled the "The Ballad of Palindrome." As the crowning touch, they even resurrected Johnny Western — the canyon-voiced crooner who sang the original 1958 TV version — to provide guest vocals on their loving parody.
Although the high-falutin' humor of "Palindrome" may be way over the heads of younger listeners, the Riders proudly tipped their ten-gallon hats to little buckaroos with Saddle Pals, a now-classic recording for kids that was re-issued on CD this year. Named the Best Children's Record by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors, Saddle Pals contains new versions of vintage cowboy songs specially re-recorded for the younger set. (Savvy parents will note that "Sweet Betsy From Pike" has been discretely shorn of the infamous verse beginning "They broke out the whiskey...".)
The Riders have performed nearly 600 times at the Grand Ole Opry, and they recently participated in the taping of the TV special "Grand Ole Opry 75th," which will be broadcast Thanksgiving night on CBS. They are also featured — along with Dolly Parton, Alan Jackson, Marty Stuart and Vince Gill — in The Twang, an IMAX film planned for a June 2001 premiere.
"That picture is a hard-galloping blast of country music history, as seen through the eyes of a time traveling 1840s Irish waif and his guardian angels," reports Too Slim. "We weighed in as heroes of a 1920s silent cowboy picture, riding to the kid's rescue while our version of 'Ghost Riders in the Sky' thunders in the background. This is IMAX, remember. My hat is going to be 30 feet high."
Fans who can't wait till next summer to see Riders on the big screen can enjoy a delightful short performance by the group which is included as a bonus on video and DVD copies of Toy Story 2. Too Slim cheerfully remembers the circumstances of filming it. "I liked it when the DP — what those of us in the biz call the director of photography — said he couldn't figure out why the camera was jiggling," Slim recalls. "It turned out that a guy in the crew was tapping his foot on the dolly track to that irresistible rockin' western rhythm."
Riders in the Sky perform with ASO at Symphony Hall, Nov. 24-25. Show time is 8 p.m. For tickets call 404-733-5000.