The more things change, the more they remain the same. It’s an adage I learned in French, but it came to mind last week in the bandstand at the Birchmere. It was a typical enough experience — standing in line waiting to get the band to autograph a portrait I’d just gotten — but those providing the signatures were anything but your just-about-to-hit-it-big group.
They were Riders in the Sky.
The Riders, credited with reviving Cowboy music, are led by guitarist Ranger Doug, Governor of the Great State of Rhythm. Joining him is Too Slim, who mostly plays the bass but sometimes plays his face; Woody Paul, King of the Cowboy Fiddlers; and Joey, the CowPolka King on his “stomach Steinway” accordion.
The lineup at the Birchmere concert, the Riders’ 5,237th show, was the same as it was 16 years ago, the first time I saw them in concert.
Reliving my youth and having a coming-full-circle concert experience was the main reason I bought tickets to the show.
That, and I needed a really great birthday present for my dad. He was the one who took me to see the Riders so many years ago; I was six or seven, still an only child at that point, and we were living outside of Jacksonville, Fla. Why we went, I don’t really remember, but the way it probably worked was that my dad had heard the Riders on the radio and been impressed — as he still is — with Ranger Doug’s guitar work. My dad is where I got my fascination for good music made great by out-of-the-ordinary style.
We had the time of our lives at that concert. We bought cassettes (cassettes!), we bought T-shirts, we stood in line to have the T-shirts signed. I’ve frequently remembered that night over the years, as the star of Riders in the Sky has flashed onto the mainstream (they’ve won two Grammy Awards for their work with Disney’s Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc.). And then the Riders’ star showed up in the music listings, as an upcoming show at the Birchmere.
It was a nudge from the spur-heeled boot of Fate, and I’m not one to ignore Fate, especially when she’s got her spurs on. So I bought two tickets and started devising a way to convince my dad he needed to drive 3 hours to see me on a Thursday night, knowing that whatever happened, it would all be worth it when he saw Riders in the Sky on the marquee.
And guess what? It was. And it got even better when the show started. When they were on stage, it was easy to forget that 16 years had passed, and thus the Riders were 16 years older; their cowboy hats hid their gray hair.
There was just as much between-song banter as I remembered, and those comedic interludes were fresh and smart. Several of the songs were ones my dad and I could sing along to, remembering them from our cassettes. After the show, the Birchmere gift shop sold CDs, Too Slim’s “cac-tie”, and T-shirts with the same design as the ones we’d bought a decade and a half before.
It’s low-key acts like the Riders in the Sky that really earn my respect. After making introductions, Ranger Doug apologized for the lack of decoration on the stage — the prop bonfire, as well as his guitar and Too Slim’s string bass, had been left behind when their tour bus broke down. They’d had to fly in to Alexandria to do the show. I say the mark of the true entertainer is not a platinum record or a contract pushing the billion-dollar mark; it’s smiling and singing and playing borrowed instruments for a Birchmere gig.
It was more than enough to impress two longtime fans, and perhaps down the line my dad and I will find the opportunity to see the Riders again. I know it’ll be just the same — anything else just wouldn’t be the cowboy way.
— Meghan Williams