Riders in the Sky -- The stars of radio and the concert circuit are bringing their frontier shenanigans to TV in a new series

As our story begins, we find our cowboy heroes, Riders in the Sky, in the MTM Studios commissary in Studio City, Calif., taking a lunch break from rehearsals for the new Saturday- morning TV show named for the group. Ranger Doug, who bills himself as the Idol of American Youth, has already proven himself to be a true friend, warning everyone not to try the lentil-split pea soup.

The Riders — Ranger Doug, Woody Paul, and Too Slim — have spent most of the morning drinking bad coffee and learning lines for today’s cliff-hanger adventure, one of 13 episodes set for this season. It’s an odd sight, three men in their 40s pretending they’ve been placed in a magical trance by the evil Fairy Badmother, only to be awakened by Too Slim’s high-decibel snoring.

”Boy, Ranger Doug,” Woody Paul had said, with his usual earnestness, ”Too Slim is really sawing some logs.” ”And lucky for us, Woody Paul,” answered Ranger Doug in his best cowboy-hero voice. ”Why, if it wasn’t for Slim’s deviated septum, we might never have woken up.”

Welcome, buckaroos and buckarettes, to the continuing adventures of Riders in the Sky, America’s strangest singing cowboys and stars of what promises to be the most unusual show to hit Saturday-morning TV since Pee-wee Herman presided over his Playhouse.

The Riders’ combination of sincerely delivered cowboy harmonies and twisted sagebrush satires has earned them a loyal cult following over the past decade, much of it from three years of weekly Riders’ Radio Theater programs on National Public Radio, not to mention a dozen albums and thousands of live shows. Now with some of the edgier material (such as commercials for Deadwood Darlene’s Prairie Lubricants) replaced by puppets, cartoons, and sing-alongs, the Riders are trying their hand at a new form: kidvid.

”I don’t feel constrained at all by doing a kids’ show,” says Ranger Doug, pulling up to the lunch table. ”Kids have been an important part of our audience for years, so this was not an illogical move.”

But, in a cartoon universe populated with Ninja Turtles, Muppet Babies, and Super Mario Brothers, will America’s young ‘uns really have a hankering for grown men who yodel and do rope tricks? Will kids who grew up on MTV really start calling each other ”saddle pals”?

”Oh sure,” says Ranger Doug, ”when kids see cowboys, they get excited. Everybody wants to be a cowboy sometime in their life.”

”If you don’t believe it,” says Woody Paul, ”come to one of our live shows and watch a hundred of ’em get onstage with us in their cowboy hats.”

The Riders first started performing together around Nashville in 1978, as unlikely a collection of cowboy heroes as you’re likely to find. Guitarist and yodeler extraordinaire Douglas Green (Ranger Doug) was a country-music historian with a master’s in literature from Vanderbilt. Fiddler Paul Chrisman (Woody Paul) had a degree in plasma physics from MIT, and bass player Fred LaBour (Too Slim) had a bachelor’s in wildlife management from the University of Michigan. But it was a mutual love of Western music, particularly the sunset-cool harmonies of the classic cowboy group Sons of the Pioneers (hit makers of the ’30s and ’40s), that brought them together as struggling musicians in Nashville. Although entertaining Western parodies (such as the long-running mock serial ”Meltdown on the Mesa”) have been part of their act from the very start, the Riders are dead serious about the music.

”If it was just a joke to us,” says Too Slim, ”I don’t think we’d still be here 13 years down the trail.”

It was producer Alan Sacks, a longtime Riders fan who was wearing boots and cowboy hats even in the days when he was producing Welcome Back, Kotter, who convinced CBS that cowboy heroes could be as viable today as they were in the days of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. He roped Judy Price, CBS vice president for children’s programming, into attending a Riders’ concert last year and bombarded her with newspaper articles about how cowboys and Westerns were becoming fashionable again.

”I have to admit we were a little bit gun-shy,” Price admits. ”It’s a big leap from being a singing group to (doing) a kids’ show. But sometimes when you come across something that’s really good, you just have to take the chance.”

What makes it even chancier, Price admits, are comparisons that will inevitably come up between Riders in the Sky and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Both shows are throwbacks to kids’ entertainment from an earlier generation, both feature live actors, puppets, and brightly colored Tilt-A-Whirl sets designed by art director Wayne White. The Riders’ stage set, all purples and greens and off-kilter buildings, could easily be mistaken for ”Pee-wee’s Bunkhouse.”

With lunch about over, it’s time for our heroes to mosey back to the rehearsal hall, across the studio lot that used to be home to Republic Pictures and many a classic Western set. ”There’s not a day I don’t walk along here somewhere,” Ranger Doug says, ”without wondering where did Gene or Roy walk. Where did the Sons of the Pioneers practice their harmonies? I get goose bumps every day.”

Goose bumps over memories of ”Cool Water”? Riders in the Sky are endearingly playful, but they don’t play everything for laughs.