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It's the Cowboy Way: The Amazing True Adventures of Riders in the Sky

By Don Cusic

University Press of Kentucky, 306 pages, $29.95 hardcover

Reviewed by Jon Johnson, January 2004

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As part of the wider celebration of Riders in the Sky's 25th anniversary in 2003 came this informative - and surprisingly candid - history of the nation's most popular western act since the heyday of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry in the '40s and '50s.

Although Riders in the Sky have never had a radio hit, their profile has otherwise been as high as any chart-topper with a similarly long career, appearing regularly on TV, radio, recordings, in movies and on concert stages around the world. Their particular genius has been that they've never been a straight western revival act so much as they've been part-Sons of the Pioneers and part-Firesign Theatre, where the jokes - and sometimes even the songs - work on two or three different levels.

Author Don Cusic - a journalist for Billboard, Cashbox, Music City News and others - has turned in a fine account of the history of popular western act, relying heavily on first-hand interviews with past and present band members as well as a handful of the group's associates.

Cusic also extensively traces the origins of the group's material both self-written and otherwise. Although much of the same territory is covered in the Riders' member Doug Green's 2002 book "Singing in the Saddle," its inclusion here is definitely of interest to those who might not have read Green's book.

Surprisingly for a group that's regarded as family-friendly as they are, Cusic is straightforward when it comes to the group's offstage behavior during the first 10 years or so of their career.

Marijuana was a regular staple in the Riders' early years as was alcohol (a particular vice of fiddler/group eccentric Woody Paul Chrisman until the early '80s), and band associate Billy Maxwell's recollections are particularly revealing (let's just say that the behavior of the group's members on the road in the early years was about what one would expect of most young red-blooded American males in the same situation). Warts and all, Cusic's real triumph here is that the reader does come away with a pretty good feel for the personalities of the group's members.

Criticisms are relatively few. Since Cusic is not only the book's author, but was also the group's first manager, his insertion of himself into the narrative comes across a little awkwardly, though to be fair his tenure with the group was relatively short, so the jarring lurches from first-person recollections to third-person, then back again don't go on too long. In addition, Cusic sometimes recounts the same events two or three times - particularly in the early chapters - leaving the reader with a frequent state of déjà vu.

These are minor criticisms, though. If you enjoyed Doug Green's book last year, you'll likely find this equally entertaining.