Riders in the Sky,
Christmas the Cowboy Way
(Rounder Records, 1999)

Singing cowboys live! The trio of Ranger Doug, Too Slim and Woody Paul are among the most delightful retro singing groups ever, since they bring back the grand days of the Sons of the Pioneers and the other close harmony cowboy groups who rode the movie screens and airwaves of the '30s and '40s. I love this trio of yodeling riders, and I wish I could say that this album is among their best, but it earns only a qualified recommendation.

Christmas albums are an unpredictable affair at best. For some artists, like Perry Como, they can be among their best recorded work. But for most, Christmas albums are either throwaways in which the artist records a set of traditional carols bound to sell to fans year after year despite the quality, or a slight misfire, in which the chemistry just isn't right. It's ultimately in this second category that Christmas the Cowboy Way belongs, though there's a lot of fine music in the mix.

It starts out promisingly, with "Corn, Water, And Wood," a song whose title had me expecting a holiday ditty about homemade whisky. Instead, it's a sweet and sincere retelling of the story of the Three Kings, set in the southwest, with a nice reading by Too Slim. "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" is a clever followup, subtitled "The Last Christmas Medley You'll Ever Need To Hear." It springs from the proposition that all Christmas songs are derived from "Let It Snow," and does a hilarious job of proving it. It's a real showcase for the boys' instrumental prowess.

What would a Riders in the Sky album be without a chance to show off some mighty yodeling? "The Christmas Yodel" gets it done in grand style. This isn't just Jimmie Rodgers uvula twitching, but the real thing, octave-leaping and complex, and a marvel to hear! It also offers some gorgeous vocal harmonies, the Riders' primary musical strength. Side Meat, the boys' erstwhile comic sidekick and cook, makes his obligatory appearance with "Side Meat's Christmas Stew," which is amusing the first time, but you may want to program it out on repeated listenings. For me, a little Side Meat goes a long way, but the kids should love it.

One of the Christmas questions that has never dogged most of us is what happens to all the musical notes played at Christmas time. The Riders offer a cute answer with "The Prairie Dogs' Christmas Ball." This animal-themed number segues naturally into "The Friendly Beasts." The version offered here is similar to that of the Louvin Brothers, with the emphasis on fine harmony singing, a real pleasure to hear. We head back to the Southwest again, with "Virgen Maria (Why Are You Weeping?)," a ballad about a Christmas miracle, and a slight excursion into Mexican melodies. "I'll Be Home For Christmas" plays to the Riders' strengths: glorious vocal harmonies and fine instrumentals, including dandy guitar and fiddle solos. Joey the Polka King gets featured next on "An Old Fashioned Christmas Polka." It's exactly what you'd expect, and a great deal of fun.

The album's low spot is an unfunny parody of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." This particular song has been parodied ad infinitum. In fact, if one wanted to do another Golden Throats album of recorded awfulness, a full album of "12 Days" parodies would do the trick. The only one that ever worked for me was a version the Chad Mitchell Trio did back in the mid-'60s about the resurgence of Nazis in Germany, because it was more chilling than funny, and the constant repetition drove home that point. The Riders' attempt, like the majority, is just tedious, and the fact that Side Meat is featured doesn't make it any easier to bear. Please, guys, just one Side Meat song per album, OK?

The downward spiral continues with "Just Put a Ribbon in Your Hair," a Woody Paul solo that doesn't fit the rest of the album. It's a bluesy, straight ahead country song with a wailing sax obbligato and banal lyrics. Frankly, as beautiful as their ensemble voices are, none of the Riders seems to have that distinctive a solo voice, and that goes for Woody Paul here. The album concludes with "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," and the chorister in me cringed when the Riders broke up lines like "Emmanuel (breath) shall come to thee, O Israel" and "Oh come, desire of nations, bind (breath) all peoples in one heart and mind." Regardless of the musical phrase, those lines should be carried over, sung in one breath so that the lyrics make sense. Nevertheless, the harmonies are nice to hear, and the song is a peaceful way to end the album.

For the most part, this is a charmer, but the few misfires make it hard for me to recommend the CD universally. Frankly, I may be too limited in what I expect of Riders in the Sky, but this album doesn't consistently play to their strengths as much as some others. They are a musical joy not to be missed, however, and I would suggest that the new listener start with A Great Big Western Howdy from last year, which includes the hilarious "Ballad of Palindrome," Public Cowboy #1, their Gene Autry tribute, or Always Drink Upstream From the Herd, which I consider their finest overall album. Christmas the Cowboy Way, despite its many highlights, is recommended primarily for those who are already fans of Riders in the Sky.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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