Talking Pictures

Ride the Wind

Riders on the Storm:Yodeling cowboys Riders in the Sky share a chuckle over the alleged plot of “Twister.”

These Riders in the Sky know a cowboy movie when they see it–even a bad one like ‘Twister’

By David Templeton

Having squeezed into a small rehearsal room backstage at the Nugget casino in Reno, the Riders in the Sky have begun our discussion of the movie Twister in a typically laid-back fashion.

Ranger Doug (known as “The Idol of American Youth”) is stretched back on the couch, softly singing, “Ooooooo-oh-klahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain!” Too Slim steps past his “bunkhouse bass” fiddle to call room service and order up some chow, while Woody Paul (“The King of the Cowboy Fiddlers”) laconically munches on leftover pretzels.

Later tonight, the Nashville-based Riders will don their cowboy duds and take the stage, engaging in the Roy Rogers-esque singing-cowboy shtick that has made them the darlings of the public radio folk-music set. They’ve cut dozens of albums over 15 years, the latest being Always Drink Upstream From the Herd (Rounder, 1996), a winner of the Cowboy Hall of Fame’s Western Heritage Wrangler award.

“Fun movie, wasn’t it?” asks Woody Paul, reaching for a pretzel.

“The twisters were great.”

“It’s just too bad they had to superimpose a plot on the thing,” Ranger Doug offers, becoming one of the very few to have seen any plot at all in this adventure of scientists Jo and Bill (Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton), who chase tornadoes.

“You know what this movie was?” Too Slim asks. “It’s very much an old-time Western. The zany, fun-lovin’ group of good guys, complete with the irascible sidekick. The bad guys drove black vans instead of wearing black hats. Instead of horses, the good guys had beat-up trucks and cars, and they got to ride hell-bent for leather. That old-fashioned Western energy was all through this.”

“Then there’s the lone hero who tries to give up the trail,” Ranger Doug adds. He’s referring to Bill, the reluctant stormchaser, and suddenly slides into the character of a gruff old twister-wrangler. “Can’t go chasin’ tornadoes anymore, fellers,” he wheezes. “Gave it up years ago!”

“You gotta put your guns back on, Bill,” Too Slim rasps, adopting the aforementioned character of irascible sidekick. “The storms! The storms are still out there. You gotta saddle up one more time. The West is still wild, Bill. We need you, Bill.”

Speaking of Bill: one Western connection nobody else picked up on was the lead scientist’s name, a nod toward Pecos Bill, the legendary cowpuncher who rode twisters across the plains.

“Oh yeah!” Too Slim grins, quickly bursting into a recitation of lyrics. “He roped a ragin’ cyclone out of nowhere. Saddled it and straddled it with ease. While that cyclone bucked and flit it, he rolled a smoke and lit it, and tamed that ornery wind down to a breeze.”

Woody, who has remained relatively quiet so far, suddenly speaks. “I saw an article somewhere about a twister that blew a hay straw right through a small tree,” he drawls.

Everyone nods appreciatively.

“Yesterday, Woody was telling me that tornadoes in the Western hemisphere spin in a different direction than tornadoes on the other side of the planet,” I say.

“That’s right,” Woody says. “It’s the Coriolis effect. He was an engineer in Napoleon’s army and he noticed that if he shot north or south, he’d miss the guy by just this much. He didn’t know that it was due to the rotation of the Earth, but he was smart enough to figure out that he’d have to adjust a little to plug the other fella.”

“Which direction would a tornado spin if it were on the equator?” Ranger Doug asks.

“There’s no such things as a tornado on the equator,” Woody replies. “They’d never start to spinning ’cause it wouldn’t have the component of acceleration due to the rotation of the Earth.”

“I was thinking,” Too Slim says. “This movie also had the great Western theme that technology can’t save you. Only a natural affinity for the land. This Bill guy–the ‘human barometer,’ they called him–he could save them because he was so … attuned. I laughed out loud. He just goes out there and stands in the wind, and he picks up the vibe of the Earth. He’s the true cowboy. He can track the wind. He can sense it.”

“At the end, when they run by that farm with the horses, I thought he was going to jump on a horse,” Ranger Doug answers.

“Man, I wanted him to!” Slim grins. “When I saw those horses, and that big cyclone looming up behind them, I sat there and said, ‘Yeah! Get on the horse, Bill! Go on! Ride, cowboy, ride!'”

“I don’t know how they missed that one,” Ranger Doug, shakes his head, adding, “Yeehaw!”

From the June 6-12, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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