Once in a while there comes along a song that refuses to go away. On occasion you don’t want anything more than that it would. Other times the song has such life to it that every time you hear it, it still sounds fresh and enjoyable.
In 1948 a Park Ranger working Death Valley, California had an inspiration while viewing the desolate but beautiful scenery of the hottest place on earth. He remembered a story he had been told as a boy about the Devil’s herd of cattle being chased across the sky by the restless souls of damned cowboys. The cowboys being forever cursed to ride and ride after that herd they will never catch seemed to make sense when looking out over the Valley.
While working in Death Valley, Stan Jones became friends with film maker John Ford which gave him his opportunity to get his songs recorded. Over the next fourteen years, Jones would have over a hundred of his songs recorded by the popular artists of the day. But there was that one song, just like Jones’ damned cowboys, that just keeps on going.
Burl Ives was the first of hundreds of artists to have recorded “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend,” followed shortly, as was common in those days, less than a month later by Vaughn Monroe’s version which was also the first time “Ghost Riders” charted at the number one spot.
All in all quite a lot of success in the space of a month.
Jones’ song was far from done though. Less than two weeks after Vaughn Monroe hit the charts, Bing Crosby released his version on March 22, 1949. 1949 was a very busy year for “Ghost Riders.” In April, singer Peggy Lee released her take and once again only a month later even comedy meister Spike Jones got in the act with his send up of Vaughn Monroe’s version.
There was even a French translation version by Les Compagnons de la chanson also in 1949. From there Stan Jones’ song just kept on going. All through the 50′s and 60′ everyone from surf master Dick Dale to Elvis Presley took their turn with the cowboy classic.
In 1979 Johnny Cash finally took the plunge and recorded one of my favorite versions.
When Cash recorded his version for his Silver album, “Ghost Riders” had been a staple of country and popular music for a full thirty years. A measure of success that Stan Jones never could have imagined. (Jones himself had passed on in 1963 at only 49 years of age.) His song however, just keeps going.
When Johnny Cash took on “Ghost Riders” he also produced one of the more memorable versions. With the creepy, jangly honky-tonk piano and de-tuned guitar opening things up, Cash sets the mood right away. Then the horn section announces Cash’s arrival as the haunted storyteller. Cash’s determined but understated deliver works wonders on this story about the endlessly wandering cattle and cowboys.
The production is of course marvelous being led by Brian Ahern and engineered by music legend Billy Sherrill. The mix of Sherrill’s old school style with what was then Ahern’s cutting edge digital additions was controversial at the time but it certainly worked magic on “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
With a stable of the best musicians you could get from Bob Wootton on electric guitar, longtime Cash bassist Marshall Grant, drummer W.S. Holland and even a then mostly unknown Ricky Scaggs on fiddle, Cash had a perfect combination of the old and the new when he recorded Silver.
Just a year after Johnny Cash had his last major charting hit with “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” (it reached #2 in the US and #1 in Canada,) the next generation was ready to take Stan Jones’ story to another place.
The Outlaws version has always been one of my favorites. It’s an exercise in unbridled rock n’ roll enthusiasm while still keeping that country kick. There was that period in the late 70′s and early 80′s when country mixed not just with pop, say as in The Eagles and Jackson Browne, but when bands like Molly Hatchet and The Marshall Tucker band we’re hitting the twang thing with hammers, anvils and full pyrotechnic displays at their shows. Even 38 Special could really rock the twang thing when they wanted to. (38 Special, “Chain Lightning!”)
But The Outlaws went one step further and took on “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Opening up with a simple acoustic guitar in a flamenco influenced passage so you can’t be quite sure what to expect. Then the drums come crashing in with a dual lead guitar and wicked power chords and the required thumping bass.
By the time the chorus rolls around the backing vocals are being treated to a bit of flange distortion making them delightfully creepy. The lead guitar solo is a great bit of crossover somewhere between country and hard rock. All the while the bass is running rampant in the back.
Rather than singing the final verse The Outlaws decided to simply go mad for the last nearly two minutes of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” This is also when it transitions to full blown rock n’ roll with multiple guitar leads wending their way back and forth, up and down. All in all an exercise in complete rock n’ roll enthusiasm.
“Ghost Riders in the Sky” has proven quite adaptable to almost any musical style. Keep in mind that it takes an artist of amazing talent to do this to such a great song…
Stan Jones’ song has been recorded over and over in Germany in the 64 four years since Burl Ives first hit the radio with his version. The German Metal band Dezperadoz did their cookie monster version in 2000.
Even the acting world is not immune to the charms of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Though perhaps someone might want to do something about that.