The song (Ghost) Riders in the Sky must be one of the most recorded country songs ever. Wikipedia lists over 100 versions in 11 different languages. Add to the mix the amount of songs inspired by (Ghost) Riders in the Sky, such as The Door’s “Riders on The Storm,” Def Leppard’s “Foolin,” and Motörhead’s “Iron Fist” – it’s quite an influential song. Heck, I’d bet that Barry McGuire’s “Cosmic Cowboy” has its root here. Oh – the song even inspired the Marvel Comic series Ghost Rider!
While it might be fun to compare every version of this song ever recorded – it would take way too long. Instead – I picked 9 versions to compare. So saddle up, and ride your horse into the wild blue yonder….as we compare covers of (Ghost) Riders In the Sky to several different cover versions.
Stan Jones Version (1948)
Not always credited as the original, Stan Jones wrote (Ghost) Riders in the Sky. The record is rare, and hard to find even online. The youtube video below is the only version I know of! But how does it sound?
The song is haunting – especially the chorus as we hear the Ghost Riders sing “Yippie aye yay, yippie aye yo” in a reverb heavy chorus. The instrumentation relies heavily on the bass and very little on the electric and acoustic guitars – a rarity in country music.
The story of the song bases itself in the supernatural. A rancher encounters a herd of ghost cattle, and a handful of the damned chasing these cattle. The damned warn the rancher of his fate if he doesn’t turn from his ways. In some ways the song parallels Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Story.”
Honestly, the song terrifies me! Cattle with their brands on fire, horses snorting smoke, and the aforementioned bass guitar mimics a fast heartbeat – such as someone encountering something bizarre and otherworldly. One thing that really puzzles me – why did the cowboy try to catch the herd? Honestly if it were me, I’d keep a safe distance, even run the other way. When a herd of ghostly cattle descends from the sky….that’s a cue to get out of the way. Maybe the cowboy was brave, maybe he was stupid – or maybe he knew there was a message.
Vaughn Monroe Version – (1949)
Monroe’s version of (Ghost) Riders In the Sky was the first version to hit number one Billboard. Monroe’s version is more palatable, and a lot less haunting than the original. While the original sounds absolutely terrifying, Monroe’s version sounds more like a fairy tale.
Monroe’s voice certainly sounds a bit more soothing for cerinaly, while the ghost riders themselves don’t sound nearly as eerie. Instrumentally, the song relies more on strumming guitars and less on a beating heart emulating bass.
Perhaps this is why Monroe’s version reached number one while the Jones version didn’t. Monroe’s version really feels a lot more disneyfied. People like that.
Peggy Lee Version – (1949)
For such a prolific song, (Ghost) Riders In the Sky has relatively few covers done by female vocalists. Peggy Lee is one of maybe five I found in my research of the song.
For the most part, Peggy Lee gives the song the same treatment as Monroe. Lee gives the song a pop feel. The chorus is sung by a choir of standard pop jazz singers – a very popular trend in the late 40s. However, I will say that she adds something significant. The second chorus lingers quite a bit with the vocals. That choir I mentioned sing some pretty ghostly notes, straying from the original quite a bit! I kind of wish the original did this!
Sons of Pioneers Version – (1959)
The Sons of Pioneers actually did two versions of (Ghost) Riders In the Sky – one in 1949 and one ten years later in 1959. We’re focusing on the 59 version as that feels more finished – besides, we already have two versions of the song from 49.
At the start of the Sons of Pioneers version, we get a feeling of adventure. We have a calling horn. We also have quite the toe tapping guitar rhythm. The lead vocalist has a classic, golden country crooner voice which lends itself to the song well.
A few interesting lyric changes: in the first chorus, before we’re actually introduced to the riders, Sons of Pioneers actually sing Ghost herd in the sky. Makes sense – as the cowboy hasn’t seen the Riders yet, just the herd.
Another change, in every chorus – they take out the first “yippie.” So we hear “kay aye, yippie yi oooh.” It almost sounds like an error in recording, but they do this on every single chorus. I almost wonder if a sound engineer went in and removed the “yippie” post recording. I really find this a bit jarring.
One really great feature of the Sons of Pioneers version – during the last chorus, the harmonies favor baritone and bass notes. It gives the ending a bit of the ghastly feeling that every version of this song should have.
The Ventures Version – (1961)
Early surf rockers, The Ventures, instrumental of (Ghost) Riders in the Sky works surprisingly well. Yes – the original and most of the subsequent versions rely heavily on the lyrics and the presentation of the lyrics that one might be a little skeptical. Still, two distinct features save The Ventures version from being just a novelty cover.
The first feature – the surf guitars. Specifically during the verses. We get the same eerie feeling found in most versions – yet without the lyrics. Of course, by 1961 (and certainly by today), the song was well known – so the lyrics didn’t need (and still don’t need) to be heard to be known – everyone knew / knows them already. So – if (Ghost) Riders in the Sky was not well known, these surf guitars might not have saved the message.
A second feature – a ghostly sound that sounds like a female vocalist. Honestly – I’m not sure what instrument was used to emulate this sound. Possibly a guitar or some sort of stringed instrument. Regardless – it isn’t human though it sounds close to human. And the sound is played all throughout the song. Creepy!
Elvis Version – (1970)
One gets the impression that the Elvis version is nothing more than just a goof off or jam session. We hear someone talking at the beginning as though this was not a serious take. We also have Elvis goofing off at the end, laughing, and then singing “lada da da da, la da da di da!”
Honestly, even if the Elvis version is a “serious” version, Presley doesn’t really add anything new to the song – but he brings together aspects that work well from other versions.
The first aspect – his voice. Sons of Pioneer’s lead vocalist has a similar voice. I think I describe it as a golden country crooner voice. I feel like Elvis’ best work was done using this voice actually, as opposed to the forced rock and roll voice of say, “Hound Dog.” But I digress.
The second aspect he brings together, those surf guitars we heard in the Ventures version. Even without lyrics the guitars are haunting. But with lyrics….oh it spooks me out royally!
Again – we get the impression that Elvis is just kind of goofing around. Too bad, as this takes away from the song. Elvis did an otherwise fantastic job covering (Ghost) Riders In the Sky.
Roy Clark Version – (1973)
Roy Clark’s version shares a lot in common with the Venture’s version. Firstly – both versions are instrumentals. Secondly, although Clark uses a banjo instead of surf guitars, we get a similar eerie sound. However, the two versions are quite different otherwise.
Clark’s version uses a fast tempo – maybe a little too fast. The tempo signifies adventure, and not a ghostly encounter. The fact that Clark’s version is purely instrumental doesn’t help this adventurous instead of ghastly feeling. A slower tempo actually would make the song really creepy and frightening!
Still – there’s a few redeeming factors in Clark’s version. We have a slide guitar used here and there – which sounds ghastly in itself. There’s also a few times where we get a dueling banjos effect. This provides an almost dialog between the cowboy and the Ghost riders. Very interesting.
Johnny Cash Version – (1979)
Johnny Cash recorded a lot of covers, yet somehow knew how to make them his own. Maybe it’s his style of halfway talking, halfway singing. Regardless, this style of “singing” works well with the monologue nature of (Ghost) Riders In the Sky. This form of “singing” especially works in the last verse – as he recits what the rider tells the cowboy. We almost get the feeling Cash preaches to us with this song.
The instrumentation sounds like a wall of sound. Several guitars, drums, strings, and even the calling horn we find in the Sons of Pioneers version. While this all provides a sense of adventure, we don’t get too much adventure like we do in the Roy Clark version. We actually get a good balance. In fact – we get an answer to the question I ask in the Stan Jones version – as the instrumentation gives us a sense that the Cowboy is curious. Not stupid, or even brave – just wondering what the heck is happening.
R.E.M. Version- (1984)
R.E.M.’s version starts out with an extended drum solo. Eventually Peter Buck starts his jango pop guitar playing. Finally, Michael Stipe sings the chorus a few times – but not the verses. To be fair, R.E.M. performed their version to a live audience. This song mainly served as filler and audience booster.
Even so – we get a sense of adventure and curiosity. The song provides quite a ride. Stipe’s vocals give us the eerie feel we find in some versions (and find lacking in other versions).
Yes – the original meaning of the song gets lost without the verses, but we still get the feelings of both adventure / curiosity and eeriness. We get the essence of the song.
So – which version of (Ghost) Riders in The Sky wins?
There’s a few versions that clearly do not win in my book. Roy Clark’s, Elvis’, and R.E.M,’s all seem to lose too much of the orignal song to really be considered the best. That isn’t to say that these are bad versions, they’re just not the best. Likewise, Peggy Lee, The Ventures, and Vaughn Moore gave the song a lot. All three deserve an honorable mention.
This leaves three versions. The original Stan Jones version, the Sons of Pioneers version, and the Johnny Cash version. All three versions have their place. The Stan Jones version sounds creepier than any of the other versions – also provides a baseline to judge all other versions. The Sons of Pioneers version seems to have lent a lot to later versions of the song. The Johnny Cash version, however, feels perfect. Again – Cash knew how to make a cover his own song. Cash held the spirit of the original, and even answered lingering questions I had about the song. While there’s almost an overproduced sound – Cash still makes the song work. So Johnny Cash’s version of (Ghost) Rider’s in the Sky clearly wins. By the way – if you want to read the story of the how I saw Johnny Cash live, and foolishly didn’t care – check out my playlist.