If your radio dial has ever drifted into left field--88.5 to be exact--on a Saturday afternoon, you may have heard the strains of three-part cowboy harmonies, songs about blue skies and cattle and faithful ponies. Perhaps you heard a pitch for the imaginary Deadwood Darlene's Prairie Lubricants. Maybe you turned up the volume when groups such as the O'Kanes, John Hartford, Gary Morris and Asleep at the Wheel started to sing.
"Riders Radio Theater," which airs at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and is rebroadcast at 10:30 a.m. Mondays, recalls the Western radio variety shows of the 1940s and might be compared to "A Prairie Home Companion." Each week, listeners to about 100 public radio stations across the country hear a variety show that includes live music, guest-star appearances and a serial that takes place at the "Triple X Ranch." The half-hour show is performed, written, directed and produced by three musicians who bill themselves as Ranger Doug (Douglas B. Green), Woody Paul (Paul Chrisman) and Too Slim (Fred LaBour).
"It's one of our most popular programs," said Pat Kowalick, KCSN production manager. In a survey taken in March, 25% of KCSN subscribers cited "Riders Radio Theater" as their favorite program. At its recent convention, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gave the show awards in the categories of general music and technical achievement.
In addition to their radio show, the Riders are recording artists--their 10th and latest album, on MCA, is titled "Riders Go Commercial'--and they frequently take their act on the road. The trio will be in concert at 7 and 9:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Granada Hills Masonic Auditorium (a children's show is scheduled for 3 p.m.).
"Riders Radio Theater" originates at WPLN in Nashville, where the Riders corral their fans for live tapings at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
"We rope'em and drag'em in," said Green, a.k.a. Ranger Doug, who plays guitar. "Something we do touches them. The heart and soul of the West means something to them."
Riders in the Sky, who seem to enjoy wearing colorful cowboy get-ups even when they're not performing, provide all the voices of the characters in their shows, including those of their arch-nemesis, A. Swinburne Slocum, and his bumbling lackey, Charlie. They are helped by their accordion-playing sidekick, Joey the Cowpolka King, and their suave announcer, Texas Bix Bender.
The Riders are all in their early 40s--Green is 43, Chrisman is 40 and LaBour is 41--but they neither look nor act their age. In character, they are alarmingly clean-cut. The strongest oath heard so far on "Riders Radio Theater" is "holy heifer!" (spoken by Sheriff Drywall, alias Woody Paul alias Paul Chrisman). But some of their material takes a literary or political turn. ("Woody, I knew Will Rogers. Will Rogers was a friend of mine. Woody, you're no Will Rogers.")
Green, whose alter-ego Ranger Doug is also known as "the Idol of American Youth" on the show, is the level-headed leading man and, at last count, the only one who ever gets the girl. He has a larger than life quality on stage and an astonishing cowboy yodel.
Chrisman's Woody Paul is known to fans as "the King of the Cowboy Fiddlers" or, when doing his rope tricks, "the King of the Clothesline." His character is an enigma, seeming a bit slow at first but actually possessed of a scientific and mathematical genius that has helped the intrepid cowboys escape certain death from floods and avalanches. (Chrisman has a Ph.D. in physics from MIT--a little something to fall back on, he says, in case this singing cowboy thing doesn't work out.)
LaBour's Too Slim, "the Man of Many Hats," is the group's standout comedian, with an impressive range of character voices. In addition to the evil Slocum, LaBour's repertoire includes Side Meat, the feisty old chuck wagon cook (whose secret biscuit ingredient is cement); Freddy La, the Surfin' Cowboy; and an assortment of oil frontier salesmen hawking services to the cattle trade.
If the Riders have a theme, it's something called "the Cowboy Way," a lifelong pledge to always do the right thing. Frequently, this philosophy turns up during their radio adventures as a concern for the environment. (Slocum once tried to poison the Los Angeles water supply, hoping to make fast bucks by selling bottled water.)
"It's pretty easy for us to be on the side of taking care of the environment," Green said. "You can't love the West without loving the out-of-doors and caring for it."
The three musicians got together in 1978 in Nashville, where they had solo careers as acoustic musicians. Riders in the Sky first took their stage show on the road 11 years ago this week. On Wednesday night in Santa Cruz, they logged their 2,000th performance. Those attending tomorrow's concert in Granada Hills will find the trio quite accessible, for the cowboys' policy is to linger in lobbies after the show, autographing Riders' merchandise from Too Slim's Mercantile, dispensing handshakes and hugs. These fan-bonding sessions, they say, pay off in the long run and are as enjoyable and as much a part of the show as anything they do on stage.
Meanwhile, though the Riders express a strong willingness to get involved in television and movies, the continuation of "Riders Radio Theater" remains a high priority.
"We are looking for a corporate, white-hatted godfather to ride to our rescue and say, 'We will fund this wonderful show,' " LaBour said.
"And he's looking for us too," added Chrisman, "only he doesn't know who we are----yet.
"Let's keep the airwaves safe for the Cowboy Way."