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Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier

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Riders in the Sky’s latest CD is their self-described “lost” album, recorded in 1994 but only released this July. The “Singing Cowboys” take on the man and the myth that is Davy Crockett with a fun mix of folk songs, “neo-folk” songs, Disney tunes and some of their own songs, their goal to paint a picture that is “neither totally real nor totally false.”

As mentioned in the album’s lengthy notes section, after a few years in relative isolation, Davy Crockett has been hot again, with new books being published and the recent release of Disney’s The Alamo, which featured efforts to offer a more “nuanced” Crockett (Billy Bob was no Fess Parker, as they say). Crockett’s personal history is sometimes difficult to separate from his legend, especially since the tall tales often originated during his lifetime (and he was on occasion willing to spin some of them himself). For example, there was the 1833 book Life and Adventures of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee which was a huge success, along with Crockett’s own 1834 autobiography which didn’t try particularly hard to “set the record straight,” as it were.

The songs on this set are an eclectic bunch, sung with the down-home country style that is the Riders’ signature (for the uninitiated, listen to the music in Toy Story 2, and that’s the boys). They open with “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” the theme song from the Disney show. It has twenty-nine verses in total, and was, in its way, one of the most popular songs of all time. Crockett’s motto – “Be Sure You’re Right, and Then Go Ahead” – serves as the base of the second song, originally done by Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen themselves as they cashed in on the 1950s Crockettmania. Woody Paul’s laconic delivery of the lines seems somehow quite appropriate.

Other songs, such as “King of the River,” which features the deep bass voice of Too Slim singing “I’m Mike Fink, King of the Ri-VER,” end up bringing a chuckle and a shake of the head. “Heading for Texas” is a new song, a bit more introspective, exploring as it does what Crockett might have thought or felt as he prepared for his journey westward. “The Grinning Tale” is a humorous little ditty, originally written by an Arkansas troubadour named Jimmie Driftwood, and focused on one of the principal parts of the Crockett legend: his grin.

The album closes with an expanded version of a song called “Farewell” that was featured in the Disney episodes. Fess Parker sang a few snippets of this poem, supposedly written by Crockett himself, in a scene set at the Alamo. Riders in the Sky chose to sing the entire song, even though it was long, in one extended “take.” It is a haunting, tender ballad of regret and well – farewell.

All in all, Riders in the Sky presents a fascinating, if not truly “accurate” portrayal of Davy Crockett. It is interesting in these more sensitive times to hear someone sing about Davy’s “Injun” friends, as in “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” and on occasion the lines, such as in “The King of the River,” seem dated. Nonetheless, it is an engaging group of songs, sung with enthusiasm by the “singin’est Cowboys this side of the Rio Grande.”

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About Bill Wallo