in performance: riders in the sky

riders in the sky. clockwise from left: joey the cowpolka king, woody paul, too slim and ranger doug.

riders in the sky. clockwise from left: accordionist joey the cowpolka king, fiddler woody paul, bassist too slim and guitarist ranger doug.

Santa caps on the cattle skulls, colored lights dangling from cardboard cacti, the festive show-opening chords of Deck the Bunkhouse Walls – it all signaled the return of Riders in the Sky’s annual Christmas concert last night at the Kentucky Theatre.

Sure, the University of Kentucky’s record-busting 2000th basketball win a few blocks away at Rupp Arena was the biggest deal going down downtown. But kicking off one’s proverbial muddy boots to the sounds of Grammy winning singing cowboys serving up vintage polkas, fiddle swing tunes and, of course, seasonal carols offered far cozier pleasures – especially with Christmas itself only days away.

Obviously, tradition played highly into such charm, whether it was through the hushed harmonies that backed up bassist Too Slim during Corn, Water and Wood or the reference (again by Too Slim) leading into a decidedly non-holiday run-through of the Rawhide theme to a television age when there were “three channels and plenty to watch.” Hearing the group channel that most celebrated of Yuletide singing cowboys, Gene Autry, for crisp deliveries of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Here Comes Santa Claus was equally enjoyable.

The program also revealed its own sense of tradition. Familiarities were plentiful to anyone who has been a regular patron to these programs over the years, from Too Slim’s modern day variation of The Night Before Christmas (recited in character as a Festus-style sidekick named Sidemeat) to the cowpoke aphorisms dispensed near the show’s conclusion (“May the horse be with you.”).

But there were also new treats last night that were just as unaffected and engaging as the crowd-pleasing bits. On the traditional Yuletide side was a Western swing version of Winter Wonderland gingerly propelled by fiddler Woody Paul and accordionist Joey the Cowpolka King. Falling closer to the borderline was a spiritually regal ballad written and sung by guitarist/frontman Ranger Doug with subtle Tex Mex colors of guitar and accordion titled Virgen Maria (Why Are You Weeping?).

But the emotive simplicity of this kind of program was crowned by perhaps its most obvious moment – an encore version of I’ll Be Home for Christmas, the familiar war-era prayer for peace that was performed as a hushed sing-a-long. It was an appropriate farewell, one that was full of hope, innocence and no small measure of fancy – much like Christmas itself.

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