- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

It used to be that when it came to music, one didn't say "country" without saying "western" along with it. In the 1930s and '40s, the "western" half was as popular, if not more, than the country side. Singing cowboys such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers made cowboy songs and movies big, big hits.
At the same time, bands like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies were combining string band music, blues and swing jazz into an extremely popular musical mix that was later known as western swing.
Although both styles of music have faded from the mainstream, they are by no means dead and gone. Two of the bands that still cherish and cultivate these vibrant musical genres are Riders in the Sky and Hot Club of Cowtown. Both are making appearances in the D.C. area this week.
Tonight at the Birchmere, Riders in the Sky will combine cowboy songs, beautiful harmonies, hot playing and traditional comedy into a wonderful evening of family entertainment. As they have for the last 25 years, they will offer audiences a taste of the cowboy fantasy.
"People just want to escape for an hour to a world where right and wrong are clearly delineated," says Riders lead singer and guitarist Ranger Doug. "You're out there answering to nobody but your conscience, and taking care of nobody but your horse and singing a song in the wide-open spaces. What a great fantasy."
The band, made up of Ranger Doug, fiddler Woody Paul, Too Slim on stand-up bass and Joey "the CowPolka King" on accordion, are more than just four guys playing cowboy songs. As good as the music is, the old-fashioned jokes and corny skits are an important part of what keeps the show balanced.
"It would be easy to take this stuff very, very seriously and get a little pompous," Ranger Doug says. "It [the comedy] makes it a show that people will want to come and see. It's not just an educational experience in capital letters. It's a show, just like Gene Autry had a show and Roy Rogers had a show and the Sons of the Pioneers."
It's so good that the band has recorded 30 albums of classic and original western songs. They have also created and hosted Riders' Radio Theater on National Public Radio, starred in their own network Saturday morning TV show, hosted "Tumbleweed Theater" on cable's TNN, and appeared everywhere from "Austin City Limits" and the Grand Ole Opry to Atlanta Symphony Hall and "Barney."
Recently they have collaborated with Walt Disney/Pixar. First they provided the music for "Woody's Roundup" in the animated feature "Toy Story 2." They've recorded two "companion albums" for Disney/Pixar movies: "Woody's Roundup featuring Riders In The Sky" and "Monsters Inc. Scream Factory Favorites." The first won a Grammy Award for Best Children's Album in 2001. Even though the second stretched their talents outside the cowboy genre to Dixieland, doo-wop, and early rock 'n' roll, they are again nominated for a Grammy Award.

Although critically acclaimed Hot Club of Cowtown has been together only a short time five years compared to Riders in the Sky, the group is just as committed to preserving and strengthening its favorite classic musical styles, and just as committed to having fun doing it.
"A lot of people who are playing old music nowadays are maybe stuffier about it," says Cowtown fiddler Elana Fremerman. "What is important to remember is that it was popular and there is no reason why it can't continue to be popular instead of like a museum piece."
Sunday night at The Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington, Miss Fremerman, guitarist Whit Smith and Jake Erwin on upright bass will share their love of hot swinging music.
"I love flashy play, and it's fun to be able to aspire to virtuosity," Miss Fremerman notes. "At the same time, interspersed with that are these beautiful simple melodies and songs people can dance to. It just makes people happy. Plus a swung rhythm underneath, even if you are playing a sad song, there is something about it that it's just not depressing."
The music Hot Club of Cowtown plays is not just the western swing of Bob Wills. Their name was inspired by the hot string jazz swing of Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grappelli's legendary band Hot Club de France. They also embrace the improvisational freedom that the jazz approach brings.
"Almost everything we do is improvised," Miss Fremerman says. "We'll play the melody up front in a song, and that's usually fairly consistent, although it gets stylized different ways on different nights. Some songs are very arranged, so there's not a lot of room for improvising, but I would say 90 percent of our songs are 80 percent improvised."

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