ENCOUNTER WITH RIDERS IN THE SKY
By Tom Cole
Written Fall Semester 1998
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It was an ordinary lounge in a brand new Las Vegas casino and its tiny stage was only a foot above the floor. There were maybe twenty small round tables in the room, one of which bore a sign that read, "Reserved for Riders in the Sky." The Riders, of course, would not be sitting there; they'd be on the stage. I guessed that the table was for the equipment manager or for the Riders' family members or friends.

I looked the place over, marveling at how small it was and I thought, "Oh, man, I'm going to be sitting right in front of them when they play."

There was not yet a single person in the lounge and I knew I had plenty of time to choose a good table. Then a fear struck me, and I went up to the bar to make sure that nothing had gone wrong. But all was well; the barmaid said that the act was still scheduled for eight o'clock.

When I turned to pick out a table, they were suddenly there -- two of the trio anyway: Ranger Doug, guitarist and Too Slim, bass player. They looked just like they did on TV, jazzed up in their Hollywood western outfits.

"Oh," I said nervously to Too Slim. "I'm such a fan." I stuck out my hand and he shook it.
The Riders in the Sky book I had brought with me was in my other hand and I held it up. "I wondered if you could sign this for me."

"What's your name?" Too Slim asked."Tom. "

"Tom?"

"Yeah, I flew over from Arizona just to see your show tonight."

Too Slim wrote, "Howdy Tom!" on the title page and drew a cartoon cowboy hat there.

I shook Ranger Doug's hand and said, "I'm your biggest fan."  I opened the book to an article that he had written. The article was on rhythm guitar technique. It ended with some sheet music showing how to imitate the astonishing Ranger Doug style of rhythm guitar playing. The style entailed playing a different chord for every beat (or nearly so) of every measure of an entire song. "I play guitar and I found this extremely helpful," I told him. "I hope you'll find time to write some other articles like this."

"That's all I know," said Ranger Doug.

I was surprised at how soft spoken he was. This guy could yodel louder and better than anyone I'd ever heard. I wondered how his off-stage demeanor could be so subdued.

"Are you going to be playing the L-5 tonight?"

"No," said Ranger Doug, quietly. "I didn't bring it." He took the book from me and thumbed through it to show a photo of the guitar he planned to play. It was an old Gibson square-shouldered dreadnought.

"Why that guitar especially? Does it roar like the L-5?"

"No, but it travels well and if someone steps on it, it isn't the end of the world."

I knew what he meant. Most guitars are not very expensive, but the L5 is an offshoot of the old Gibson Super 800, which was so named because in 1939 it cost $800.  An arch top instrument like a violin (with F holes), it was designed big and noisy to be heard over the brass bands of the time. The L5 is similarly designed and its price is comparably high; a few weeks earlier, I had looked up the model in a Gibson catalog and found it listed for $12,000. I'd never as much as seen a real one.
Ranger Doug talked in almost a whisper about guitars and touring. Then he went through the book with me before signing it. Too Slim looked on all smiles and patience. Ranger Doug's wife, Diana "the Scandinavian Goddess" (Everyone associated with the Riders has an epithet.) walked up and joined us.

"Would you guys mind if got a picture of me with you?" I asked.

"I don't mind," Too Slim said.

I stood between them and Ranger Doug put his arm around me as  his wife took the picture with my camera.

"Well, I'll look forward to seeing you guys at eight o'clock." I said.

"Okay, Tom," said Too Slim.

"See you," Ranger Doug whispered.

I chose a table next to the stage and read through a field guide on birds to kill time. When the lounge began to fill, I shared the table with some locals. They'd seen the trio just once on TV and were hooked. When they heard the Riders were in town, they had come running. I knew a lot more than they did about the group and I filled them in.

The show started in the Riders' usual way: music and then introductions. Ranger Doug began with, "Ladies and Gentlemen to my left -- your right-- as you stare into your radio this evening, a man aging like fine cheese. Too Slim!"

But Ranger Doug's voice was barely audible. It cracked and he seemed in pain just getting the words out.

"And I'm glad to be here!" said Too Slim. "Thanks, Ranger Doug."

"And to my right and your left -- his Royal Majesty, Woody Paul, the King of the Cowboy Fiddlers!"

Woody smiled. "Thank you, friends," he said. "Thank you so much. No, no, keep your seats -- that's all right."

When the applause ebbed, Woody went on. "Thank you for that wonderful, warm applause, but kindly save your strength because --  here stands a man above the rest. He's more than equal to any test. He's a man of gumption, grit, truth. Known to millions as the Idol of American Youth. Ranger Doug!"

"That's me!" said Ranger Doug, but the words came out as just a croak. The tall crooner's voice was gone.

"Oh, no!" I said to the people at the table. "Ranger Doug has laryngitis!"
The Riders explained that Ranger Doug's problem was "swollen vocal chords," an affliction that professional singers occasionally get. No one knows why, but sometimes it happens and then later it gets better. They hoped.

The band launched into its songs and Ranger Doug was mostly just pretending to sing. Woody Paul took over the yodeling and Too Slim and he did the singing along with what very little Ranger Doug could add. The music was still excellent, but the jury-rigged PA system that the lounge had put together made it tough going for the Riders. Indeed, there was at least one time when the feedback got so badly out of control that the whole song just ground to a crashing halt.
During the intermission, I approached Woody Paul for his autograph. He looked at me and said, "I've got to apologize for this sound system."

"It's a shame about Ranger Doug's voice," I said. "Do you think it'll get better?"
"I don't know. It's been this way for three months," he said. "And I'm tired of doing all the yodeling."

"You're good!" I said . And it was true. I was very surprised at how well Woody could yodel.
"Hey, Too Slim would like that book," Woody Paul said, pointing at the field guide.

"Is he a bird watcher?"

"Sure."

I took the book over to Too Slim and asked him if he ever used Robbins and Singer's book. He said he used the Roger Tory Peterson Guides and had become interested in birds when he got his degree in biology.

I knew that Too Slim also had a master's in wildlife management. All of the Riders had advanced degrees: Ranger Doug a master's in literature and Woody Paul a Ph.D. in plasma physics from M.I.T. Too Slim, however, had perhaps the greatest claim to fame on the college scene for he single-handedly started the world-wide "Paul Is Dead" Rumor back in 1969 when he was editor of his university's newspaper.

I wanted to ask him about how he had taken up the string bass, but there were other fans that wanted a chance to talk.

I went back to my table, and watched Ranger Doug greet the fans with a button on his shirt that said, "No questions, please. I'm on Voice Rest." I was just about the only one who got to talk to him that night. His wife sat at the Riders' reserved table chainsmoking with a giant daquiri in front of her and  laughing with a girlfriend.

When the Riders went into their next set, I requested a Woody Paul tune called Blue Bonnet Lady. I knew that Ranger Doug didn't sing the lead on that one.

Too Slim looked down at me and said into the mike, "Hey, everybody! It's Tumbleweed Tom from Arizona!"

I sat there grinning stupidly. "Oh, these Riders are real people pleasers," I thought as the locals at my side dug me in the ribs and banged on the table.

As the show continued, I tried to imagine what it must be like to be on twenty years of non-stop road tours. This was just one of the one-hundred-plus shows the Riders put on that year. And Ranger Doug wouldn't get his voice back for another eight long months.

In the meantime, I  sat basking somewhat uncomfortably in the obscure fame that Too Slim had manufactured for me.