Band rides into town

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The group that started "just for fun" is still around 26 years later and is now the subject of a new book called "It's the Cowboy Way: The Amazing True Adventures of Riders in the Sky," by Don Cusic.

Cusic is a professor of music business at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and writes about country music and gospel music in books and articles.

His book tells the story of a cowboy band that formed in 1977, performing music in the style of Gene Autry.

"Riders" have a nudge-and-wink style of performing, complete with over-the-top cowboy outfits and dripping with references to the long-gone, Hollywood-singing-cowboy tradition.

Ranger Doug (Idol of American Youth) -- who would not reveal his real name -- is the lead singer, songwriter and master yodeler. He is joined on stage with Woody Paul (King of the Cowboy Fiddlers), Too Slim (Insert Title of Your Choice) and Joey "The CowPolka King."

Among them, Ranger Doug is known as an American western music historian.

"We're a western band, not a country band," he said. "Country music is about feeling sorry for yourself and falling off the barstool. Western music is more about freedom and living the cowboy life."

When they first started the band, they didn't know it would turn into a lifelong career, Ranger Doug said.

"We just loved the music, and no one was playing pure western music," he said. "It was being ignored, left to die, but I loved the message of that music, and I loved the songs."

The group imitated the image of the famous singing cowboys and sang "songs of the trail."

They sing a few classics, but write most of their own music.

"We always felt that we wanted to be an actual part of the tradition rather than a museum piece," Ranger Doug said.

As fate would have it, "a lot of people heard what we heard in it."

Over the years, the group expanded its show and went on to almost 300 TV appearances, a long-running National Public Radio show called "Riders Radio Theatre," almost 700 Grand Ole Opry appearances, two Grammy awards and 30 albums.

Most recently, they were in an episode of "Duck Dodgers in the 24st-and-half Century."

"They animated us and everything," Doug said. "It was pretty fun."

Riders in the Sky have played in Steamboat at Strings in the Mountains a number of times.

"We have a lot of jokes that they just don't get in New Jersey," Doug said. "It's a lot more fun for us in the West.

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