While many rockabilly and neo-swing revivalists endeavor to turn back the clock to 1954 at the very latest, Riders in the Sky go back even further. The Riders formed in 1977, aiming to preserve, re-create, and extend the tradition of Western cowboy ballads of the ’20s and ’30s as originally sung by the Sons of the Pioneers, Rex Allen, and Gene Autry. This is not country music but rather Western — aside from the spare string band-type instrumentation (guitar, fiddle, bass, accordion), this style has little in common with country. This particular cowboy way is a balance of rustic, earthy, round-the-campfire simplicity and smooth pop sophistication, defined by crooning — and yodeling — lead vocals, tight harmonies, and overtones of both Tex-Mex border music and swing jazz. Not to mention sentimental mythology and innocuous cornball humor.
The Riders have the look and sound down, exaggerated cowboy garb and all. Aside from the CD-age sound quality and occasional exhortations such as “Play that funky music, Slovenian boy!” during a hot accordion solo, one would think this was being broadcast from a New Mexico radio station in 1941.
The two-CD, 42-song Silver Jubilee commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Riders, presenting new recordings of songs from their enormous repertoire. The Golden Age standards are here — “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Cool Water,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky” — interspersed with RITS originals such as the earnestly swinging “Blue Bonnet Lady,” the yodel-laden train song “Here Comes the Santa Fe,” and perhaps their very best: the elegant, evocative “Blue Montana Skies,” where fiddler Woody Paul makes like a sagebrush Stephane Grappelli. You can almost feel the heat from the campfire and hear the coyote in the distance.