Who would you rank as Hollywood’s greatest best-friend pairings? Butch & Sundance? Thelma & Louise? It doesn’t take long to reach Woody & Buzz. Pixar’s Toy Story franchise has now enchanted a couple of generations with the angsty cowboy and his idealistic astronaut pal. And it turns out that the Grammy-winning musical soundtrack to their partnership springs from a handful of Midwest kids whose own big imaginations rode off in a cowboy direction right on the shores of the Great Lakes.
In the 1960s, a kid named Douglas Green discovered via his Michigan radio the National Barn Dance, carried over the air from Chicago’s WLS on Saturday nights. He fell hard for Western swing music and classics from the likes of Gene Autry. On getaways to a family cabin (or “camp,” as its known in Michigan) near Ishpeming, Douglas learned guitar from his uncle and decided music was the career for him.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, he headed to Nashville and soon met the witty bass player named Fred LaBour. Turns out LaBour had attended UM at the same time after growing up near Grand Rapids. Before long, the cowboy music/comedy group Riders in the Sky was born. Nearly 40 years later, the band (long since up to four members) has kept its original personnel, given more than 6,000 live performances, joined the Grand Ole Opry and earned two Grammies for the soundtracks to Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. (Fiddler “Woody Paul” Chrisman cracks that when the Riders were surrounded by celebrities at the Grammy ceremony, “We were the only people in the room I’d never heard of.”)
When I got the chance to hang out with them backstage before a recent show in Des Moines, it didn’t take much prodding for them to start unwinding tales of their Midwest roots.
Joey “The Cow Polka King” Miskulin, the Riders’ accordionist, came up via the Chicago polka scene. After growing up on Chicago’s southwest side, he started playing with polka legend Frankie Yankovic at age 13. On a good night, they’d pack 7,000 people into a Milwaukee concert hall for shows. “It was standers in the front, dancers in the middle and talkers in the back,” Joey says.
Even with their Western angle, the Riders still find Midwest audiences among their best. “There’s a great folk music tradition in the Midwest that I think we’re a part of,” says “Ranger Doug,” now billed as “The Idol of American Youth.” And state and county fairs, in particular, remain one of the Riders’ favorite venues. “I’m an old livestock barn guy,” says “Too Slim” LaBour. “My dad used to drag us through them.”
Call that proof that no matter how many awards these cowboys rack up, they won’t forget that it’s always good to keep your roots close and a little Midwest barnyard on your boots.
Riders in the Sky's next Midwest shows are in Wisconsin and Indiana in September. For a tour schedule, visit this site.
Photos courtesy of Riders in the Sky.