Beginning each performance with their trademark greeting, "Mighty fine and a great big Western 'Howdy,' all you buckaroos and buckarettes,"
simultaneously paid tribute to and poked gentle fun at the classic cowboy songs of the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the work of
. During the 1980s and 1990s, the group was notable for its ability to attract fans both firmly within the country tradition (
are members of the Grand Ole Opry) and from outside.
Before forming the band, the Michigan-born Ranger Doug
was a member of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys
and was also a country music journalist, working at the Country Music Foundation Press as editor of The Journal of Country Music. Prior to joining the Riders
, Woody Paul
, a formidable swing fiddler, played with Loggins & Messina
, and Too Slim
was a member of Dickey Lee
's band in addition to being a songwriter. The trio formed in the mid-'70s, playing a weekly gig at a Nashville nightclub that led to a slot on Tumbleweed Theater on cable television's Nashville Network (TNN). Riders in the Sky
made their recording debut in 1979 on the Rounder label with Three on the Trail
, which set the pattern for their mix of classic and newly composed sentimental western numbers, parodies (like "The Legend of Palindrome," in which a figure resembling television's Paladin is described exclusively in sentences that read the same backwards and forwards), crack swing instrumental work, and Sons of the Pioneers
-style harmony singing. They released five albums on MCA in the 1980s, and in 1985 they appeared in Sweet Dreams, the film biography of Patsy Cline
. The group returned briefly to MCA in 1987, releasing Riders Radio Theater
a year later. The success of that album led to the program Riders Radio Theater
on National Public Radio, where the group was already well known from performances on Garrison Keillor
's Prairie Home Companion
In 1991 the Riders
moved to CBS for the children's album Harmony Ranch
, which led to a short-lived CBS-TV Saturday morning television show. Riders in the Sky
continued recording for Rounder and other labels into the 2000s, offering A Great Big Western Howdy!
in 1998 and Christmas the Cowboy Way
a year later. In 2000, Woody's Roundup: A Rootin' Tootin' Collection of Woody's Favorite Songs was released, and 2002's A Pair of Kings
showcased the increasingly impressive instrumental talents of Miskulin
. As Riders in the Sky
approached their 25th anniversary they were known as an unfailing concert draw: their shows featured such novelties as rope tricks in addition to music and humor. In 2007, the Riders
released Public Cowboy #1: A Centennial Salute to the Music of Gene Autry, celebrated their 30th anniversary, and received an award from the Western Music Association for Entertainers of the Year.