A press shot of Ranger Doug (fourth from left) and Riders in the Sky
Courtesy of Fox in a Box Marketing and PR

Riders in the Sky's Ranger Doug on 40 years of 'Preserving That Classic Western Sound' from the Opry Stage


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Back in 1982, Riders in the Sky guitarist Ranger Doug --the stage name of Doug Green-- approached Grand Ole Opry General Manager Hal Durham with a request that, like every strategic move made by the band before and since, secured a spot for singing cowboy songs in the contemporary country music ecosystem.

"After about 25 times that we'd been guests, I went to [Durham's] office and said, 'There's nothing like us on the Opry. We're funny and we do a style that doesn't compete with anybody else. We get a good reaction. We'd love to be members,'" Green told Wide Open Country.

Riders in the Sky joined the Grand Ole Opry cast on June 19, 1982. The group has been integral to the show since then, bringing a mix of family-friendly yet whip-smart humor and original songs about nature, the outdoors and the cowboy lifestyle that's remained unwavering amid changes to country music, the Opry and society as a whole.

Green learned about the long-term benefit of sticking to his guns and avoiding trend-hopping during stints in 1967 and 1969 with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys.

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"Like many artists in our mid-career, he was not as popular as he was 20 years before I started to play with him," Green said of Monroe. "He had been approached by his record companies to update his style and get an electric guitar and get a little more modern and blah blah blah. He absolutely refused. He was completely committed to his music, which he felt he invented-- which was largely true."

The group that rechristened Green as Ranger Doug --a.k.a. the Idol of American Youth and Governor of the Great State of Rhythm-- formed in 1977.

"I had been infatuated with that style for quite a while, and I had done some solo performing in that style," Green stated. "But I don't like doing solo. I'm really a band guy all the way. Since it's always about the harmonies, it's hard to sing harmony vocals with yourself. I had tried a couple of times to put together some guys, but with as many good musicians as there are [in Nashville], there weren't the people who wanted to commit to that kind of harmony singing. But luckily enough, Too Slim [bassist Fred LaBour] did.

"Another guy called 'Windy Bill' Collins was not as into it, but we had fun," Green continued. "That was the original Riders in the Sky for about seven or eight months. Then ['Woody Paul' Chrisman] happened to see us, and in his shy, humble way, came up and said, 'I think you boys can really use me.' Of course, he was right. He joined, and then it really coalesced because he was writing songs as well as I was and he's a good tenor singer and a world-class fiddler. He's in the National Fiddler Hall of Fame. So it was a great fit, and the three of us were a trio for 10 years. Then [accordionist Joey Miskulin] joined us about 1988 and made the classic quartet that we've been ever since."

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MANCHESTER, TN - JUNE 10: Ranger Doug of Riders In The Sky performs during Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on June 10, 2018 in Manchester, Tennessee.

Erika Goldring/Getty Images

In between the founding of Riders in the Sky and the group's Opry induction, attempts were made on the business end to modernize an approach bent on championing the timeless look and sound of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

"We had one management company that said, 'You guys ought to get sports coats and pull up your sleeves, kind of like the Oak Ridge Boys. I think that would really work for you.' Another one said they wanted us to add an electric guitar and drums so we could play dance music at the Holiday Inn," Green explained. "This was early in our career, but we were steadfast and have been steadfast committed to the classic sound of western music even though we add original songs to it and our comedy. Our mission all along has been to preserve that classic western sound and not let it become nostalgia."

Jokes that suit the times and backwards-glancing original songs remained integral to the band's sustained relevance across a run that landed it a Saturday morning children's show in the '90s, Grammy-winning musical ties to Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. and other instances of Green and his bandmates being right there waiting when popular culture needed singing cowboys.

"We did not want to be a museum piece or a recreation of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1942," Green said. "We felt that the only way to keep this fresh was to write new songs in the style. People always want to hear 'Riders in the Sky' and 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds' and the like, but it's always mixed with original songs. We've always felt that was very important. And of course the comedy, which is probably the reason we're still around."

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UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01: WEMBLEY ARENA Photo of RIDERS IN THE SKY, Woody Paul, Ranger Doug Green, Too Slim

David Redfern/Redferns

This summer marks 40 years as Opry members for Riders in the Sky-- a run that began when some of the show's foundational musicians and comedians still stood in the Opry House stage's hallowed circle.

"One of the wonderful things about it is that we joined in time to work with and get to know a lot of the legends that are gone now," Green explained. "You know, Hank Snow and Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff and Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl. We got to work with all of those people and get to know them. That's just magic to me now. We got to work with the Crook Brothers. They went on the Opry in 1926. They were still there when we joined."

Four decades later, the band regularly performs on Opry broadcasts for a multi-generational audience. In fact, the Opry House is a home away from home to the extent that there's a Cowboy Way dressing room backstage for artists, themed around the quartet and several of its singing cowboy heroes.

"One of the many, many pleasures of my job at the Opry is watching Riders in the Sky go out on the Opry stage and hit a proverbial home run night after night," said Dan Rogers, vice president and CEO of the Grand Ole Opry. "They always seem to deliver just what that night's audience needs. I marvel at their precision in finding the common denominator of our audiences from around the world and delivering entertainment that pleases everyone. They're colorful, they're great storytellers and impeccable musicians. Plus, I can always use wisdom such as 'never take a sleeping pill and a laxative at the same time.' Opry audiences have been fortunate to have watched them on the Opry stage for 40 years, and I am incredibly lucky to call them friends."

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READ MORE: Jerry Lee Lewis, Keith Whitley + Joe Galante Announced as Country Music Hall of Fame's Class of 2022

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