Mack Williams column: Revisiting Tweetsie and Riders in the Sky

  • Posted: Monday, August 26, 2013 12:23 a.m.

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter Rachel, her friend Richard, my son Jeremy, his wife Rose and I returned to the “days of yesteryear” (not long yesteryear, but theirs, mine, and maybe yours, too) at Tweetsie Railroad theme park. In addition to “catching up” with Tweetsie, like an old friend infrequently seen, our other reason for going was to attend a concert given there by the American Western group Riders in the Sky.

In earlier years, my late wife Diane, Jeremy, Rachel and I had gone up the mountain to experience Tweetsie several times in the 1980s and early 1990s. (In saying “up the mountain,” I know there are other peaks on the way, but to me, it always seemed like one big “rise.”)

All four of us had seen Riders in the Sky at performances in Burlington and Martinsville in the mid 1990s.

Our memories of Tweetsie Railroad and Riders in the Sky had been filed away in separate memory compartments, but were soon to be mixed as in a recipe (as each enhances the other), the end result: a blended memory of both to be filed away under the date Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013.

Arriving that morning, only the parking spaces in the outlying area of the parking lot were available, but it made me feel good to see that, because that’s how I remembered it from my children’s youth and my own. It looked just like that when my parents, brother Joe and I arrived there in 1958 via my father’s old early 1950s Studebaker. (That same car would also take us in other years to Grandfather Mountain and Maggie Valley’s “Ghost Town in the Sky.”)

We made our way up the hill to an expansive green tent filled with chairs and a stage. It looked kind of like a preachin’ tent (except that it was green, not white). Instead of the Golden Rule, the subject of our instruction would be “the Cowboy Way.” (But there really isn’t any difference between the two, now is there?)

We eagerly awaited the opening of the door of the Winnebago behind the tent from which the members of Riders in the Sky would appear. The gentleman giving their introduction made the usual statement about silencing cellphones, but requested that no cap guns be fired during the concert (making sense, of course, because after all, it is Tweetsie).

The Riders appeared in their wonderful western garb and began to sing and play. Just a few bars into their first song, the intervening years between our last hearing of them and the present sort of seemed to resemble a great intermission break in one of their past programs during which my children had grown up, my wife had left the world, and I had gotten older. That’s the feeling that you get with them, so comfortable a feeling that you start to think that listening to and enjoying them is really what life is all about, with everything else occupying breaks between the sets of their performed songs.

The member of Riders: “Too Slim,” who sings and plays the string bass, is known as “the Man of a Thousand Hats,” and not unlike Lon Chaney Sr., provides some facial entertainment, but in his case, by sometimes playing tunes on his actual face. Ranger Doug is “the Idol of American Youth,” with guitar, song and yodel (even though Ranger Doug is the idol of American youth, I, at 62 years of age, want to be just like him someday when I grow up). Woody Paul is “King of the Cowboy Fiddlers” and Joey “the Cow Polka King” is an accordion master (sometimes even acknowledging the crowd’s applause “a la Lawrence Welk” with “Ah thank you, thank you!” Each of them is truly worthy of his moniker, more so than the landed bearers of royal titles who often possess only money, not talent. They seem to truly enjoy each other’s company and make you want to go on a cattle drive with them, or at least ride around the country with them in their Winnebago to future concerts.

Just inside the border of one side of the tent were placed a couple of folding tables filled with CDs, music books, hats and shirts, Too Slim’s famous “cactie” (a tie fashioned after a cactus, or perhaps a cactus fashioned after a tie?). Too Slim made reference to this assemblage of Rider’s related merchandise as “Too Slim’s Mercantile” and invited the concert’s attendees to visit it. Midway through the first part of the concert, one of those amazing, voluminous mountain showers came up and lasted for about 30 minutes. At the shower’s start,those tables and their contents were quickly moved further inside the tent’s parameters so that the “dry goods” of Too Slim’s Mercantile would not become wet.

The mountain shower (downpour) was of such intensity that trying to look at anything outside the tent was like trying to look through a stream of poured milk ranging from 2 percent to not quite whole, but definitely thicker than skim. Another way of putting it would be to say that trying to catch sight of the surrounding mountains during that shower was similar to trying to peer past a frothy waterfall to the rocks behind it. Too Slim said that the group had performed under tents before that had leaked, but the Tweetsie tent was watertight, and as he stated, “a “darned good tent.” (Instead of the greater “D,” Too Slim chose the lesser one, for to have done otherwise would not have been “the cowboy way.”)

Riders in the Sky performed from noon till one o’clock, then said that they would break for an hour and resume with completely different songs. We ate some of Tweetsie’s barbecue for lunch, and I was so amazed at its taste that I had to complement the young people (apparently, very early 20s) who cooked it. They seemed startled by being complemented and earnestly thanked me several times. That barbecue, being fixed in the western half of the state, had the wonderful taste of barbecue from Salisbury and westward, but not wishing to add further fuel to an old feud, I have eaten the barbecue at King’s in Kinston, and it tastes great too, but in a different way.

Next week: Riding Tweetsie’s rail again, and Riders in the Sky part two

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