February 27, 1989 12:00 PM

They’ve got the 10-gallon hats, the furry chaps, the spinning lasso. They pat their trusty hosses, reckon they’ll be movin on and head out for the high country. They’ve even been known to get all choked up longing for a longhorn cow. But when these rowdy singing cowpokes—”Woody Paul.” “Ranger Doug” and “Too Slim”—hit those happy trails, there are some odd notes in their manly harmony.

Roll over, Randolph Scott, and tell Gabby Hayes the news: Riders in the Sky, the music-comedy stars of Public Radio’s Riders Radio Theater, are suddenly seeing their career rise like—well, allows Too Slim, “Not like a rocket. Maybe a hot-air balloon.” They mockingly describe themselves as the Springsteens of the Sagebrush and the Marx Brothers of Western Music, yet the trio are selling out weekly tapings of their Nashville-based radio show, opening on the road for Willie Nelson, singing a Levi’s 501 ad and watching their 11th LP, Riders Radio Theater, gallop out of the stores.

They owe it all to veering from the Gene Autry-tried and Roy Rogers-true of Western warbling. Though “Happy Trails” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” are in their repertoire, the Riders prefer spoof on the hoof. Their idea of a ballad is “Mystery of the Lost Ozone,” in which the good guys rescue the environment from bad guys wielding giant aerosol cans. Their props include electric camp-fires, artificial cacti and plastic armadillos. They offer commercials for “Udder Butter on a Rope” and “Bio Feedbag.” They take time out for a word with Two Jaws, the dead talking horse whose corral pals include “Mr. Ed and Francis the Talking Mule—still a jackass.”

No, their chow isn’t laced with loco-weed. “We’re walking lampoons—or riding lampoons,” says poet lariat Too Slim (born Fred LaBour), 40, who formed the group 10 years ago with Ranger Doug (Douglas Bruce Green), 42, and later recruited Woody Paul (Paul Woodrow Chrisman), 39. But beneath the parody, there’s a genuine love of the lore. “Without that,” says Slim, “you’ve got three overeducated guys with their tongues so far in their cheeks it’s not funny.”

Indeed, the Riders have enough degrees between them to paper the bunk-house. While Ranger Doug calls himself the most needlessly educated man in America—he has a master’s in literature from Vanderbilt—and Too Slim boasts a University of Michigan degree in wildlife management, the real brains of the outfit is Woody Paul, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering from MIT.

But the Riders don’t stress the intellectual aspects of life on the range. “Children like our shows,” says Too Slim. Sure enough, kids arriving at a recent Nashville concert were packing six-shooters and wearing RIDERS IN THE SKY SADDLE PALS badges. “Kids today don’t have Roy and Gene,” says Ranger Doug, “but they know what it’s about.”

Back at their respective ranches, the Riders have a total of 10 kids. But averaging over 200 days a year on the road has taken a toll on their lives with womenfolk. All three are divorced or separated.

Riding away from any heartbreak, the trio stay saddled up and concentrated on career. “We’re lookin’ to get them from tiny kids to geezers,” says Woody Paul. “I was born to do it!” announces Too Slim, dropping to the floor in a frantic “rabbit dance.” Ranger Doug smiles broadly in satisfaction: “We always knew…someday, America would pay to see this act.”

—Steve Dougherty, and Jane Sanderson in Nashville