Fiddler Woody Paul of Riders is the Cream of the Crop
Whether fiddling, roping, or driving the bus, Woody Paul does it the Cowboy Way
“I never had a lesson!” This unlikely declaration is routinely made by the eccentric fiddler Paul Chrisman—better known as Woody Paul—as he basks in post-solo applause during performances with the cult-favorite cowboy band Riders in the Sky. “Thanks, folks—I never had a lesson!” he’ll blatantly insist, with a boyish grin and a semilordly wave to the audience, while his fellow Riders—guitarist “Ranger Doug” Green, standup bassist Fred “Too Slim” LaBour, and master accordion-player Joey Miskulin—nod their big-hatted heads and join voices to proclaim: “There’s Woody Paul—the King of the Cowboy Fiddlers!”
Clearly, the absolute validity of the King’s never-had-a-lesson claim is a bit suspect; that level of skill and stylistic eclecticism doesn’t just happen. Whether raw and rowdy, hot and jazzy, or sweet and sentimental, Woody Paul’s distinctive fiddling stands out as one of Riders in the Sky’s strongest musical attributes. It is somewhat easier, however, to believe the laconic fiddler’s jubilant admission that he seldom practices.
Woody Paul to be inducted into the National Fiddler Hall of Fame.
Before the show, Paul sheds a little light on the subject.
“It’s true. I almost never practice,” he says, relaxing backstage at the Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts, in Santa Rosa, California, where Riders in the Sky prepared to give the 4,850th performance of its 25-year-long career.
Freshly awoken from an afternoon nap out in the Riders’ touring bus, Paul yawns, guzzles a pint carton of straight half-and-half (as in the dairy product, of which he’ll consume a total of three pints during this interview alone), all while distractedly eyeing the row of gleaming, steaming serving dishes being tended across the room by a white-aproned caterer. Dinner isn’t quite ready yet, though, so Paul turns his attention back to the issue of practicing the fiddle. “I really don’t practice,” he says. “I just stay up there in the bus—six hours a night, if I’m not driving—and I play licks over and over again. I make stuff up, I play standards, thinking up new licks for old tunes. I love it. Even more than I like playing on stage, I like playing for myself.”
After another glance at the food and a playfully hollered, “Are we catered yet?” Woody adds, “I’m seriously going to investigate rigging up a foot-pedal operation on the bus—to turn the steering wheel with one foot, y’know? So I can play while I drive. I’ve tried it, playin’ the fiddle while I steer with my knees, but it freaks the guys out, so I gotta come up with something else.”
The Cowboy Way
Riders in the Sky gave its first performance on November 11, 1977, at a little spot called Herr Harry’s Phranks & Steins in Nashville, Tennessee. Attired in the kind of exuberantly fringed, technicolor cowboy outfits favored by such legendary singing cowboys as Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, and Gene Autrey, the trio’s anachronistic repertoire was a pack of cobbled-together throwback yodeling, campfire songs, and such old Hollywood-style cowboy tunes as “Back in the Saddle Again,” “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” The band was originally made up of Greene, LaBour, and fiddler Bill “Windy Bill” Collins—Paul joined a few months later, replacing Collins.
Riders in the Sky made an instant and offbeat name for itself throughout the rowdy Nashville club scene.
Twenty-five years later, the boys still dress the same distinct way—on stage at least—and their act continues to include western music of the “Cool Water”/“Home on the Range”/“Don’t Fence me In” variety, mixed together with a number of great Bob Wills tunes and the like, all nicely seasoned with a big dash of original songs and served with a side-order of cowboy comedy, rope tricks, and other spur-jangling schtick.
These days, Riders in the Sky also performs about three times a year in a symphonic setting (see “The Big Band, page XX), and continues to release CDs and movie soundtracks. To date, Riders has made over 20 recordings for Rounder Records, MCA, Columbia, and Disney. In the process, the group has helped bring a new set of fiddle tunes to a whole new generation of filmgoers.
A cable TV job, as the yodeling, yarn-spinning hosts of the Nashville Network’s Tumbleweed Theater, ultimately led to other breakthroughs: several appearances in movies and TV shows, an eight-year run of the syndicated radio show Riders Radio Theater, and a short-lived Saturday morning kids’ show on CBS in the early ’90s (a replacement for the ill-fated Pee Wee’s Playhouse after comic Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Ruben was busted for indecent exposure).
In the late ’80s, Riders’ longtime producer Joey Miskulin—dubbed Joey the Cow-Polka King—officially joined the ensemble, which in spite of its numerous successes seemed destined to roam the cowboy fringes of the music world, a cult curiosity denied a shot at the mainstream spotlight. But things have changed.
In the wake of the band’s high-profile contribution to Disney/Pixar’s box-office smash Toy Story 2, in which the Riders performed the Randy Newman–penned theme song “Woody’s Roundup,” the feisty foursome has achieved a career-capping level of renown falling just short of household-name status. In 2000, the band recorded a Grammy-winning spin-off children’s CD, also titled Woody’s Roundup: A Rootin’ Tootin’ Collection of Woody’s Favorite Songs (Disney), featuring a number of original Riders songs inspired by the computer-animated character in the popular film. Since then, Riders has recorded a follow-up album, last year’s Monsters Inc.: Scream Factory Favorites (Disney, 860789), and wrote and performed “Big High Wire Hop,” the catchy fiddle-powered theme song heard in the 2002 Oscar-winning animated short film For the Birds.
Through it all, the distinctive playing of Paul has helped keep Riders in the Sky rooted in the soil it started out on: the beauty and charm of traditional cowboy music.
It Ain’t Rocket Science
While his stage persona is that of the scatterbrained goofball—speaking in cryptic non sequiturs, hilariously bombing when attempting his patented rope-trick routine—Paul may just be the smartest cowboy on the range. With a doctorate in theoretical plasma physics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he’s certainly among the most highly educated. How does someone make the journey from “budding young rocket scientist” to King of the Cowboy Fiddlers?
“Not in a real straight line, that’s for sure,” Paul says.
Born in Nashville in August 1949, the young Paul W. Chrisman exhibited a knack for fiddle playing at an early age. “Back when I was a kid,” he says, “I did a lot of playing in little fiddle contests and shows, but I also played the banjo and the guitar.”
During his college years, Paul abandoned the fiddle and devoted himself to playing the classical guitar. For six years, he attempted to master that instrument. “Then my first wife left me,” he explains. “I was melancholy and depressed, so I pulled out my fiddle and started playin’ again. I was just in the mood. Then I went down to Boston Common and started playing there—and I made a hell of lot of money playin’ down there on the street, more money than I’d ever made doing anything else in my life. So I kept on playin’ fiddle.”
After a while, he began doing session work and eventually got a job playing with the popular pop music act Loggins and Messina.
Then Paul met the newly formed Riders in the Sky, and that was that.
"Cowboy music,” he explains, “is basically jazz. It’s the same musical ideas, the same kind of tunes. Not just ABAB like fiddle tunes. A lot of the cowboy tunes are nothing but jazz tunes.”
Describing his own style as “real scratchy and real raw,” Paul lists some of his early influences: Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, the McGees, Buddy Spiker, J.R. Chatwell, and even Charlie Parker. As for technical aspects of his own playing, the King is clearly not interested in analyzing himself in any detail. Unless he’s going off on a tangent about the rotation speed of the average tornado or the physical mechanisms that keep the sun burning in the sky, the most technical Paul gets is when he expounds on the ways that bowing can define a player’s sound and style.
“Bowing,” he says, “is almost like the inner voice of the player, even among classical players. All the top [soloists] have their own way of playing and they all break the rules, they play very differently. You can listen to them all play the same piece of music and they each will have a different style of bowing—whereas a lot of the guys who sit in the chairs in the orchestra, if you put them all in a room and ask them to play the same piece, they will all sound exactly the same. Of all the guys who are doing the genius playing, their bow work is always different, they find their own way to play. They can’t help it. Not just violin, either. Slim’s got his own style of playing. Doug’s got his own sound on the guitar. Nobody else sounds like that. No one can copy that, and you can’t teach it. It’s what comes with certain musicians.”
The backstage area is growing louder as various family members and well-wishers invade the room. LaBour (that would be Too Slim) stops his warm-up on the standup bass to interject, “Woody is a unique stylist in his own right. When you hear Woody playing, you know it’s him. He’s an adventurer, a perfectionist. He’s never happy with what he’s doing. He always wants to have done it better, more interesting. Some people sit around playing the tunes they can play well, but Woody likes to play things he can’t play well, to push himself really hard.”
Miskulin, who’s been sitting across the table reading during the interview, drops his magazine. “I want to go on the record with this,” he deadpans, “and I can say this sincerely—most of Woody Paul’s solos are a lot better than they sound.”
“Thanks, Joey,” beams Paul. “I hope I can say somethin’ nice about you some day.”
A riding, roping encyclopedia of information about world-class country fiddlers, Paul also cites jazz violinists Claude Williams and Stuff Smith, and a long list of others as having contributed to his distinctive style. “I went through a Stephane Grappelli phase, there, for a couple of years,” he admits. “I learned a lot of basic jazz tunes listenin’ to that stuff. I just heard a good one this afternoon on this Django Reinhardt CD. There was this incredible sax player. I heard a couple of sax licks I’m gonna steal.” Adds Paul, “I know several fiddle players who really wish they played saxophone—and vice versa.”
And how many theoretical plasma physicists can Paul name who really wish they played fiddle with a cowboy band?
“Uh, I can think of one,” he says, and with that he opens another pint of half-and-half.