When I lived in San Antonio the symphony orchestra there had included in its pops concert series Riders in the Sky from the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. Twice. However, the first time got cancelled when the symphony folded. (It revived from bankruptcy in about a year.) And the second time I just didn't have the money to buy a concert ticket. So the dream of seeing and hearing the champions of "The Cowboy Way" in cahoots with an orchestra -- most good Western movies are set to a lush orchestral score -- got put on hold.
The hold was lifted and the dream came true in splendid fashion last evening! My ticket, provided by my Pastor's wife Dawn Hartley, who plays bassoon in the Nashville Orchestra, is for a theater seat in the main level (about same level as the stage) at the back of the hall. It's rather far from the stage, but my seat is, so to speak, on the "fifty-yard line". Smack in the middle of the row, so I'm looking straight at the conductor's stand.
This concert's conductor isn't the Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero but rather Assistant Conductor Kelly Corcoran. I'd heard her in an interview on WSM-AM 650 a few days earlier, talking with Bill Cody about the upcoming symphony concert with the Riders. I was charmed when she said that for the event she'd be buying her first pair of cowboy boots. I'm even more charmed with her very expressive and lively style of conducting!
The pre-Intermission program features the Orchestra playing a selection of Western-theme symphonic pieces: "The Cowboys Overture" by John Williams, "Concert Suite" from the movie Dances With Wolves, and finally four dance episodes from Aaron Copland's Rodeo. Over dinner at the Hartleys, Dawn had mentioned that Copland spoke the name as "ROW-dee-oh" rather than as "Row-DAY-oh" and that the symphony members had had some discussion about this. One of them emphasized that the latter is the pronunciation in Spanish and in French(?). Dawn then concluded that, if French, did that mean Conductor Corcoran would wear "cow-bwah" boots? I had laughed heartily at this!
The four episodes of Copland's Rodeo are "Buckaroo Holiday", "Corral Nocturne", "Saturday Night Waltz" and "Hoe-Down". The third one, the waltz, is so pleasantly soothing that I almost fall asleep. However the finale is the opposite: very arousing music! Really toe-tapping, make-you-wanna-get-up-and-twostep music!
During Intermission I roam the building a bit, and find a snack bar where I buy a cup of hot chocolate (topped with whipped cream). We hear bell chimes and thinking it's warning that Intermission is almost over I turn quickly and spill a sip of the hot drink before someone informs me it's the "ten-minute warning". Still, the drink's so hot that I just barely down it and get back to my seat in time!
Second portion of the program opens with the Nashville Symphony playing another western-theme piece. And then out on stage come Riders in the Sky: Too Slim, Ranger Doug, Woody Paul and Joey the Cowpolka King. On the radio ad for the concert the Riders are called "these well-dressed gentlemen", and such they are. Too Slim is garbed in his hairy chaps (I once heard him remark that they were the result of a Rogain accident) and a western shirt with a "cac-tie" (a green necktie shaped like a saguaro); the other three are dressed more typical, like Roy Rogers: boots, western shirts and scarves and white cowboy hats.
Hence, we have "Symphonic Stetsons"!
After Too Slim lights a cellophane "campfire" the quartet launches into an ear-pleasing selection of their standard fare. This is mostly old cowboy songs made famous by Roy and Gene and the other singing cowboys of yesteryear. But they kick in a few of their own compositions to boot. (Pun intended.) Interspersed is delightful banter between the four fellows, and plenty of jokes. Most of these I've heard before. Such as Ranger Doug after a prodigiously high yodel remarking that a woman told him it wasn't logical for him to sing so high -- to which Too Slim remarks, "If this were a logical world, men would ride sidesaddle!"
The Nashville Symphony sounds great as the "back-up band" for Riders in the Sky! I should mention that the Symphony recently won three Grammy Awards for their recordings. They've performed all over the place including Carnegie Hall! The Riders possess two Grammys themselves, one for their melodious contribution to the movie "Toy Story II" which I love, and the other for a more recent children-oriented flick. Later, Dawn informs me that Opry guys and Orchestra rehearsed together only once, that afternoon. I was impressed, because I didn't hear a slip-up on the part of anybody and yet there was a hint of spontaneity, e.g. in some of the movements of the four fellows regarding the orchestra.
The combination of the Symphony and Riders -- "symphonic Stetsons!" -- is something to warm the heart and get the blood pumping for your truly! Indeed, on more than one old familiar cowboy song I get a lump in my throat, and I find myself thinking of (and yes, longing for) the Idaho home of my childhood -- and at the same time that city so central to the original cowboy culture where I'd recently resided six and a half years, San Antonio. Near the great Texas city is Pleasanton, small town with the proud title "The Birthplace of the Cowboy"; in another direction lies Bandera, "Cowboy Capital of the World". I've ridden a horse only once in my life and never mingled with cattle on ranch or farm. And yet, "The Cowboy Way" (a slogan of the Riders) is definitely part of what made me who I am!
And so it is, while Riders in the Sky are singing their usual closing number, "Happy Trails", emotion about overcomes me and my head leaks a bit. I'm very happy that when they leave the stage our loud applause brings them back for an encore, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds". And I'm also glad that they announce that they'll be in the lobby to sign autographs, have pictures taken, etc. So I "hot-foot" it to the growing line of "groupies" awaiting this post-concert treat.
Yeah, yours truly is as much a "groupie" for Riders in the Sky as I am for Ray Price (see my post of 24 Sep 07 -- "I'd died & gone to Heaven" -- on my "Glen Alan's San Antonio" blog) and almost as much a "groupie" as I am for the REAL honest "singing cowboy" from South Texas, George Strait! Therefore, I pull off my battered old Stetson and have the four fellows sign it rather than just sign my program. I also chat with them, thank them, and with Woody Paul reminisce how his wife's from the same place of raising: Boise, Idaho.
And so, here are some fresh memories from this evening's performance to add to my long memories of my Western boyhood of growing up with Roy and Gene's melodious backdrop. Long live "The Cowboy Way!" Long live the Nashville Symphony! Long live Riders in the Sky!