Riders in the Sky,
Public Cowboy #1: A Centennial Salute to the Music of Gene Autry
(Rounder, 2007)

Formed three decades ago, Riders in the Sky is among the handful of groups to keep Western pop -- the Hollywood-cowboy music popular mostly in the 1940s -- from lapsing into the silence of the pop-culture grave. They are far and away the most commercially successful, carrying their revival sound all over the world and at times onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, where they perform for audiences more accustomed to factory-issue Nashville acts with no measurable debt to, or even awareness of, country music's history. (There's a reason, for example, why the genre once was known as "country-western.") The Riders are there for the comedy and novelty, of course, and their tongues are rarely far from their cheeks. They also happen, however, to be superb musicians.

Along with Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry (1907-1998) was long the reigning superstar of Western pop, which he sang on radio, in concert and in the many singing-cowboy movies (which give a modern viewer the impression of having been filmed in a parallel universe) in which he starred. His star was shining brightly when I was a small child who adored both Gene and his best friend, his horse Champion. As an entertainment-industry professional, Autry had access to good songs and good songwriters, and there's barely a tune on the Riders' tribute I haven't known all my life.

Even when the tribute-makers are as good as the Riders, one wonders why potential listeners would seek out the simulation when the genuine article is readily available in lots of good reissue CDs and even a box set or two. The Riders' versions of these classics are not exactly carbon copies, but not exactly radically rearranged either. On the other hand, their lead vocals (provided by guitarist Douglas "Ranger Doug" Greene and fiddler Paul "Woody Paul" Chrisman) are technically an improvement over Autry's plaintive sound, which was in some ways better suited to the risque Jimmie Rodgers-style blues he recorded early in his career; you can hear them on the 1996 Columbia Legacy disc Blues Singer 1929-1931. The Riders also -- gratifyingly to these ears -- drop in more Western-swing and mariachi touches than you'll hear in the source recordings. And you won't hear their clean, prairie-cinematic harmonies in the Autry versions.

In a shorter version Public Cowboy #1 was released in 1996. This 2007 second edition adds four tracks, for a total of 16. The result is 53 minutes' worth of agreeable, if by its nature unprofound, entertainment. In any event, by my understanding of the humanly possible, it is not humanly possible to dislike "Mexicali Rose," "South of the Border," "Blue Canadian Rockies," "The Last Roundup" or any of the other gloriously inauthentic Western songs here showcased.

review by
Jerome Clark

26 January 2008

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