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Monday September 01, 2014
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Riders in the Sky

 

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Erlewine, a "campy western revival band"? Certainly the pervasive humor of the Riders' self-presentation argues for the latter position. "Past performance is no guarantee of future results," warns the list of credits on one CD. In their hand, "The Legend of Paladin" (theme of the TV western Have Gun, Will Travel) becomes "The Legend of Palindrome," featuring a cowboy who can speak only in sentences that read the same backwards and forwards.

But the jokes mostly stop when the music begins; even if the Riders' covers of the classics of Hollywood cowboydom aren't exactly straight-ahead, they're always delivered with a smile rather than a smirk. It's done, as Malone says, with love. The Riders are too left-field, too college-town in their outlook ("Ranger Doug" Green lived in Ann Arbor for years) to be called revivalists, exactly, but your impulse after seeing their show is to buy a collection of old cowboy songs rather than to laugh the whole thing off.

Riders in the Sky have been compared to Garrison Keillor for their ability to draw creative sustenance from a sentimentalized past at the same time as they are sending it up. They've often appeared on Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, and they've been around nearly as long as he has: the first Riders album, Three on the Trail, came out in 1979. How have they done it? The answer to that question might be as multifaceted as it would be for Keillor, but there are a few things that stand out.

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