Like their peers in the Los Angeles Paisley Underground movement of the '80s, the Long Ryders were a band who swore allegiance to the sounds of the '60s, but unlike the Dream Syndicate, the Rain Parade, or Green on Red, psychedelic rock played a miniscule role in their musical formula. Instead, the Long Ryders were powerfully influenced by the roots-centric approach of early folk-rock and country rock acts, in particular the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Buffalo Springfield. And with the exception of the Bangles, the Long Ryders were the Paisley Underground band that came closest to achieving mainstream success, hitting the charts in the U.K. and earning a sizable cult following in the United States while making their mark on college radio. And the Long Ryders would later prove to be a major influence on the alt-country movement that would rise up only a few years after the band split up.
Named for an iconic western from director Walter Hill, the Long Ryders were formed in 1981 by guitarist, singer, and songwriter Sid Griffin, who had left his native Kentucky to relocate to Southern California after he heard about L.A.'s punk and garage rock scenes. Griffin would soon join a garage punk band called the Unclaimed, but after jamming with drummer Greg Sowders, formerly with the Boxboys, and guitarist Steve Wynn, he saw an opportunity to make music that more closely matched his personal vision. The three placed an ad in a local paper looking for musicians interested in "folk-rock, Tex-Mex, soul, surf, psychedelic," and while Wynn soon dropped out to devote time to his own band, the Dream Syndicate, the blurb did bring them lead guitarist Stephen McCarthy, and Griffin recruited bassist Barry Shank from the Unclaimed. Shank didn't last long in the Long Ryders lineup, and by the time the group made their recorded debut with the 1983 EP 10-5-60, Des Brewer was the group's bassist. The EP emphasized the garage rock side of the band's personality, but Brewer left the band not long after it was released, and with the addition of Indiana-born Tom Stevens, the definitive Long Ryders lineup was in place.
In 1984, the band struck a deal with local indie label Frontier Records, and their country and folk-rock influences came to the forefront on their first full-length album, Native Sons, which was produced by Henry Lewy (who worked with the Flying Burrito Brothers) and featured guest vocals from former Byrd Gene Clark. Native Sons received strong reviews from critics, and fared especially well in the United Kingdom, where the group's take on American musical traditions, mixed with a progressive lyrical viewpoint, clicked with critics. Extensive touring in the U.S., Britain, and Europe helped make the Long Ryders one of the most successful independent bands of the day, and in 1985, their U.K. success helped them land a new deal with Island Records. Their first album for Island, State of Our Union, was a success at college and alternative radio in the U.S., while the single "Looking for Lewis and Clark" became a chart hit in England, and though the album's more insistent rock sound didn't please U.K. critics as much as Native Sons, the album pointed to big things for the group.
In 1987, the Long Ryders dropped their third album, Two Fisted Tales, produced by Ed Stasium. The LP's first single, a cover of NRBQ's "I Want You Bad," earned plenty of radio play, and U2 invited the band to open a string of American dates on their tour in support of The Joshua Tree. However, the Long Ryders' relentless touring schedule was wearing away at the group, and by the end of 1987, both Tom Stevens and Stephen McCarthy had left the band to pursue other interests. While Island offered Griffin and Sowders the opportunity to cut another album for the label, in the interest of band unity they declined, and they dissolved the Long Ryders.
After the band's breakup, Griffin remained active in music, forming the group the Coal Porters and running his own record label, Prima Records, as well as distinguishing himself as a music writer, penning well-reviewed books on Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan. McCarthy went on to play with Gutterball, House of Freaks, and the Jayhawks, the latter one of the many bands who took inspiration from the Long Ryders. Sowders built a career in music publishing, while Stevens moved back to his native Indiana and received a degree in computer science. In 2004, the Long Ryders staged a reunion tour that included an appearance at the Glastonbury Festival (one of these shows was documented on the live album State of Our Reunion), while the band played a handful of American dates in 2009. In late 2015, Cherry Red Records released a Long Ryders box set, Final Wild Songs, which included 10-5-60, Native Sons, State of Our Reunion, and Two-Fisted Tales in full, along with rare and unreleased tracks and a 1985 concert recorded in the Netherlands. To celebrate the box set's release, the Long Ryders announced they would be playing concert dates in the U.K., Europe, and the U.S. in 2016. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi