A detailed history of Riders Radio Theater from 1978 to 1998.
One night while driving along a dark road, Tommy Goldsmith, the second man to join Riders In The Sky after "Windy Bill" Collins had left, stumbled upon a radio program called The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, hosted by E.G. Marshall. CBS Radio Mystery Theater was similar to old time radio programs such as The Mysterious Traveler and The Whistler, in that the episodes were introduced by a host (E. G. Marshall) who provided pithy wisdom and commentary throughout. Unlike the hosts of those earlier programs, Marshall was fully mortal, merely someone whose heightened insight and erudition plunge the listener into the world of the macabre. The show would present original stories in the mystery, horror, science fiction, historical drama, western and comedy genres, and sometimes adaptations of classic novels.
Live At The Wind In The Willows (1978-1979) Edit
When Riders In The Sky was performing regularly at The Wind In The Willows, a small club in Nashville, Goldsmith wrote a "radio" play titled Riders Radio Theater: The Cowboy Who Hated Christmas, which was to be a special Christmas show performed live in front of the Willows audience. After Goldsmith's first story, Too Slim took over writing the live Riders Radio shows, cranking out storylines such as The Riders Join OPEC, The Riders Go Hawaiian, The Riders Go To Sweden, and The Triple X Chainsaw Massacre. It is unknown how many live Wind In The Willows stories there were since no recordings of these performances exist, but it's very likely that they were stopped when the Riders stopped performing at the club regularly in mid-1979.
The Unaired Test Demo (Unknown Date, Pre-1988) Edit
Not much is known about this demo, except that Riders In The Sky recorded it at Tom T. Hall's studio in Franklin, TN either during or just after their Tumbleweed Theater years (1983-1986). Bruce Nemerov had seen the live show at Wind In The Willows and encouraged the Riders to record said demo, paid for it, and took it to the folks at the Prairie Home Companion, where it was rejected for being too expensive. Nemerov then took the recording to WPLN, who also turned it down, but kept the tape.
The Album (1988) Edit
In the nine-year span since the last live Riders Radio Theater at The Wind In The Willows, Riders In The Sky grew in popularity. First, they were inducted into The Grand Ole Opry on June 19 of 1982, then they gained national attention by being the hosts of The Nashville Network's Tumbleweed Theater television series (which ran for five seasons overall) from 1983 to 1985, the trio landed parts in the Patsy Cline biography film Sweet Dreams, and all of the Riders appeared alongside Kenny Rogers in his made-for-TV movie Wild Horses. In 1987, the Riders had signed onto MCA Records and released The Cowboy Way, their second live album. In 1988, the Riders decided that their second MCA record was going to be a throwback to the Riders Radio shows that they had done for the Wind In The Willows audience by including songs, sketches, and a homage to adventure serials from the golden age of radio, such as The Lone Ranger. While making Tumbleweed Theater, the Riders had created many original characters, such as Sidemeat (a tribute to Gabby Hayes), L. Philo "Larry" Mammoth (a salesman selling products by Mammoth Marketing), and Sergeant Dudley (a live-action version of Dudley Do-Right). The band decided that these characters would be perfect for this "radio album", and on March 7, 1988, the Riders began recording the Riders Radio Theater album. On the first day, the Riders recorded the "Riders Radio Theater Theme" (written by Too Slim), "So Long, Saddle Pals", "Sundown Blues", "Chant of The Wanderer" and "Cattle Call". The Riders returned the next day to record comedy bits and sketches, and later returned on March 13. After hearing Joey Miskulin play the accordion on the Frankie Yankovic song "I Wish I Was Eighteen Again", the Riders decided to invite him to come play accordion for them on the Riders Radio album, making the album the first time Joey would work with the Riders before becoming an official member. The album would be released later in the year.
The Series (1988-1995) Edit
In 1988, Ranger Doug ran into Henry Fennell, a staff announcer at WPLN. Fennell asked Doug why the Riders hadn't done something for radio yet, and was told that they tried to do that, but were turned away after playing the demo tape that the Riders had made a few years back. After hearing about this,WPLN supporters, Brenda Loftis and Judy Liff, agreed to obtain the financing for the Riders' project. The Riders and Steve Arwood (better known as Texas Bix Bender, and writer/producer for Tumbleweed Theater) wrote the first storyline, titled "Dialing For Dogies" (which would actually become a brief part of the second story-arc), but it later became just Arwood and Too Slim writing. On April 25, 1988, the first two episodes of Riders Radio Theater were taped live at the Johnson Theater in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. For each taping, the Riders would run through the whole show, edit and rewrite segments, tape the real show with an audience, and repeat for the next episode. While promoting this new show at the Public Radio Conference: In Tune With The Future event in St. Louis, Missouri in May of 1988, many radio stations picked up Riders Radio Theater, including the folks at WVXU in Cincinnati, Ohio. For the first four episodes, the Riders provided the sound effects themselves. At a meeting after a taping, the Riders and Steve Arwood decided that Bruce Nemerov would be the perfect sound effects guy, and started operating under the handle of Big Zeno Clinker. The Riders would invite Joey Miskulin to play on the tenth episode, and soon he became an official member of Riders In The Sky. A total of 52 episodes were taped in Nashville.
From Nashville to Cincinnati & Final Episode Edit
In September of 1989, the Riders were at the Emery Theater in Cincinnati for a fundraiser for WVXU. While there, they were asked about the coming season of Riders Radio Theater shows. The Riders told them that there wasn't going to be an upcoming season, and WPLN decided not to renew the show. The people at WVXU picked up the show, under the condition that the Riders taped the show in Cincinnati. So once a month, the Riders would take a four hour drive from Nashville to spend two nights in Cincinnati and tape two shows a night at the Emery Theater, and return to Nashville. The first two episodes recorded in Cincinnati were taped on January 22, 1990. After eight years of doing the show, the Riders felt burnt out on material and were tired of having to rework their touring schedule around the show, and the final "regular" episode of Riders Radio Theater was recorded on August 18th, 1995.
Riders Radio Theater Television Specials (1995-1996) Edit
Shortly after the final episode of Riders Radio Theater was recorded, the Riders' manager, David Skepner, negotiated a contract for the Riders to do Riders Radio Theater as a series of television specials for The Nashville Network. The Nashville Network had been kind to the Riders before, letting them host their Tumbleweed Theater series and a special titled Christmas The Cowboy Way in 1990. The first of these specials featured Barbara Mandrell.
20th Anniversary & Specials (1998-2003) Edit
The Riders Radio TV specials had inspired the Riders to bring the show back to radio, and in 1998, they did a Riders Radio Theater 20th Anniversary Special. After the 20th anniversary show, the Riders recorded occasional radio specials from 1998 to 2003.
Silver Jubilee Medley (2003) Edit
For their 25th anniversary, Riders In The Sky released Silver Jubilee, a collection of fan-favorite Riders' songs that they recorded over the course of 25 years. On this album is a tribute to Riders Radio Theater, featuring the Riders singing the theme and characters (such as Slocum, Charlie, and Sergeant Dudley) wishing the Riders a happy 25th anniversary.
Live From The Golden Age of Riders Radio Theater Album (2006) Edit
In 2006, the Riders released a "best of" collections of songs from the first couple of story-arcs of Riders Radio Theater, mainly pulling songs from Meltdown on the Mesa and Mystery of The Lost Ozone.
Riders Radio Records Label (2011-Present) Edit
The Live From The Golden Age of Riders Radio Theater album was released by the Riders Radio Records label, named after the radio series. So far, only three other Riders albums have been released by this label:Land Beyond The Sun (2011), Home On The Range (2013), and Riders In The Sky Salute Roy Rogers: King of The Cowboys (2016).