Ian Tyson--the old cowboy still sings and looks good doing it.
is possible you may never have heard of Ian Tyson who turned 87 earlier this
week. But then you wouldn’t be a fan of classic ‘60’s folk music,
gritty contemporary Cowboy tunes—note
I didn’t say Country music—or most
of all Canadian. After all Tyson’s wistful ballad Four Strong Winds
was voted the Greatest Canadian song and
he comes from roughly the same cohort as
such astonishingly gifted songwriters Oscar Brand, Leonard
Cohn, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Neil Young. That’s some tough competition!
was born to British immigrant parents on
September 25, 1933 in Victoria,
British Columbia and raised in the idyllic small city of Duncan, BC on the southern end of Vancouver Island. As a boy he was fascinated by the cowboys
he saw in the movies and idled his time drawing. He
was a fan of Wilf Carter a/k/a Montana Slim, the cowboy singer and yodeler who became Canada’s first country music star. Never
a ranch kid, he none-the-less became
a rodeo rider and contestant in his teens and steadily climbed to
bigger events. He also pursued art in school.
Injuries—including serious ones—are part and parcel with the rough and tumble life of
a rodeo rider. While he was laid up with broken bones and studying
at the Vancouver School of Art,
Tyson first picked up a guitar. By his own admission he wasn’t very
good. He claimed to know just two chords—surely an exaggeration since most songs have at
least 3—when he started playing occasionally at the Heidelberg Café, a rathskeller
catering to students.
by the American rock-a-billy sound
and particularly Buddy Holly and the
Crickets he joined a band called the Sensational Stripes. Within
a few months thanks to Musician’s Union
rule that concerts include
Canadian acts, the band shared stage
with the Crickets, Gene Vincent, and
Paul Anka in one of those packaged tours when it came to
Tyson graduated from Art School in 1958 his heart told him to stay on
the rodeo circuit, but his battered body was saying something
else. Never seriously considering a
musical career, he ended up in Toronto after
bumming down to California and across Canada hitch-hiking. He took a straight gig as a commercial
artist but within a few months was drawn to the dawning folk music scene
in local clubs. That’s where he met Sylvia Fricker, a 19 year old escapee from a middle class home in Chatham, Ontario who dreamed of a singing career.
was lovely, talented, and more serious about a career than the restless
Tyson. But her voice blended perfectly with his rich baritone. By 1959 they were playing together at the
Village Corner and other clubs as Ian & Sylvia. The duo quickly matured as musicians,
Tyson’s guitar playing got much better, they explored harmonies, and developed
a wide repertoire. First Tyson and then
Fricker began writing original material.
the early ‘60’s not only were they good—and
popular—enough to give up their day jobs and become full time musicians. They migrated
to the epicenter of the exploding folk scene—New York’s Greenwich Village.
Ian & Sylvia--the Greenwich Village years.
duo adapted quickly and well. They were soon in the orbit of Dave Van Ronk,
the Mayor of McDougal Street and a
friend and mentor to many young musicians. It was not long before they caught they ear and eye of Albert Grossman,
the young agent who already managed Peter Paul & Mary. Grossman quickly got them a record deal with Vanguard, the leading folk
music label. Their first album Ian
& Sylvia contained mostly traditional
British and Canadian folk songs, spirituals, and a taste of blues.
It was critically well received and a modest commercial success. It was good enough to get them invited to
participate in the legendary and seminal 1963 Newport Folk Festival.
was their next album that was a creative
breakthrough and a career
maker. In addition to their staple
traditional ballads, the album included a version of Bob Dylan’s early song Tomorrow is Such a Long Time. Grossman was then also managing Dylan and
their paths frequently crossed in the Village.
Tyson, like everyone else was struck by Dylan’s genius. But he was also put off by his arrogance and tendency to use
and discard people in his meteoric rise. Also on the album was a Tyson original.
The lonesome and yearning Four Strong Winds as written in a cramped apartment just off McDougal and captured Tyson’s own restlessness and affection for Canada
and its vast spaces. The song became a major Canadian hit and popular in the U.S. as well where it was covered by numerous artists.
& Sylvia became a major touring act in both countries as well as in the British Isles and Europe. They also sealed
their professional partnership by getting
married in 1964. For Tyson’s sake
they established a home in rural southern Alberta
which became the base from which they launched frequent tours and worked on a
succession of Albums on Vanguard and later on American commercial labels including MGM
and Columbia. Ian and Sylvia get married--1964.
marriage coincided with their third
album, Northern Journey which featured Sylvia’s original tune You Were on My Mind which became a #3 Billboard
hit in the U.S. when it was
covered by the California power folk
combo We Five. Tyson also had a memorable original,
a second signature song in
fact. Some Day Soon harkened
back to his rodeo days but was unusual
in being from the viewpoint of the girl who falls for the itinerant wild
man. It also had a swinging country music feel different
than the duo’s ballads.
Judy Collins, who had already
recorded other Tyson songs, added the song to her classic 1969 album Who
Knows Where the Time Goes and released it as a hit single. Collins, a girl from Denver,
became so associated with the song that many thought it was autobiographical. But the song had legs for other
artists as well including Cheyenne’s singing rodeo cowboy Chris LeDoux in 1973 on an album that
would recharge the cowboy genre, country music crooner Moe
Brady in 1982, and country thrush
Suzzy Boggus in 1991.
& Sylvia’s follow up album recorded in ’64 and released early the next year
Morning Rain which boosted the
career of fellow Canadian singer/song writer Gordon Lightfoot on its title track and with That’s
What You Get for Loving Me. The
album also included songs from rising Canadian stars Steve Gillette and Tom
Campbell. It cemented their reputation as the anchors of Canadian folk music.
1965 they helped shake up the folk music scene at the Newport Festival when
they showed up with an electric band in
support of their newest album Play One More. They joined The Byrds and the Lovin’
Spoonful as early creators
of the folk/rock sound. Bob Dylan’s former girlfriend Suze Rotolo in her memoirs credited Tyson with inspiring Dylan to go electric himself despite their prickly relationship.
now Ian & Sylvia were popular worldwide, but certifiable super stars in Canada. By 1967 they had
a weekly TV program on the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) where
they showcased the deep pool of Canadian talent, including
Neil Young. They also signed a second record deal with MGM
Records. For the next few years,
they would alternate releases on
their two labels with MGM steering them in a direction of a more mainstream country music sound.
the late ‘60’s the couple relocated to Nashville where they recorded two albums, one for Vanguard and one
for MGM. The Vanguard effort Nashville
was cut in February 1968, one month before The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo
and is widely considered the first
collaboration of rock and
Nashville session players and the
first country/rock album. Both albums included cuts taken from Dylan’s then unreleased
Basement Tapes with The Band.
Ian and Sylvia, left, with members of The Great Speckled Bird.
1969 the duo assembled a band of all-star
Canadian and Nashville side men and
session musicians including Buddy Cage
on pedal steel guitar, Amos Garrett, on guitar and backup vocals, Ken Kalmusky on bass, N.D. Smart on drums, David Briggs on piano for a big cross-Canada rock-and-roll rail tour, Festival Express. Dubbed The
Great Speckled Bird after the song that became the first vocal ever performed on the Grand Ol’ Opry when Roy Acuff stepped to the microphone, the band was a tight, swinging, dynamic combo.
good friend Todd Rundgren was also
on the rail tour and was so impressed by the band that he helped it get a
record deal with newly established Ampex
label, a division of the company that dominated reel-to-reel tape recording. Rundgren himself produced the recording sessions in Nashville. Norbert
Putnam sat in for Kalmusky for most sessions. Ian or Sylvia wrote all but one of the of the
album’s tracks and sang lead but were not identified separately from the band
on the original label to emphasize it as a separate project from their duo.
being widely anticipated in the industry
and the music press the label was
unable to get a distribution deal and
collapsed before much more than a
handful of copies shipped. Thousands of records were locked in a warehouse and unavailable as they were
caught up in litigation over the assets of the failed
venture. The few copies that did
surface were well ecstatically reviewed.
The LP became a sought-after cult
collection piece and bootlegged tape
versions circulated. Years later
some of the albums were released with stickers added to identify Ian &
Sylvia as the front artists.Promoting the Ian Tyson Show on Canadian TV as Ian & Sylvia redefined themselves as country artists.
was not the end of the band, however. In
1970 they became the house band on Nashville
North, a country music variety show on the CTV Network, the main corporately
owned competitor to the
CBC. The next year the program was
re-named The Ian Tyson Show and ran on the network until 1975.
omission of Sylvia’s name was significant.
By then the couple’s marriage was beginning to fray. Although she appeared on the show as part of
the band and had occasional solo numbers, her husband was out front as the
star. As the program ran she appeared
their recording careers had hit the commercial
doldrums with changing popular
tastes. Although established as
Canadian country music superstars, American audiences still thought of them,
mostly as a folk act and U.S. country
music radio thought of them as interloping
folk-rockers. With both their
Vanguard and MGM contracts at an end they were picked up by industry giant Columbia Records whose Nashville operation was overseen by Chet Atkins. Despite those advantages the label didn’t know what to do with them or how to
first Columbia LP was called Ian & Sylvia, the same name as
their original Vanguard album leading to confusion on whether it was a re-issue and at the same time failing to plant a flag as a
country act. Some of the songs were
strong but bland mainstream country
arrangements meant to be radio friendly. In 1972 a follow up You Were On My Mind featured
a later incarnation of the Great
Speckled Bird and included electric updates of some of their early folk hits. Neither record sold well and You Were on My Mind was their last
original album together.
next year Tyson backed by members of the Great Speckled Bird released his first
solo album, Ol’ Eon which was a mid-level Canadian hit. Shortly after Ian & Sylvia broke up as an
act and the couple amicably divorced in 1975, the same year as Tyson’s
TV show ended.
went on to a successful and varied career on her own. Her 1975 debut solo album on Capital Records, Woman’s World
out-performed Tyson’s debut in Canada.
She later established her own independent label Salt Records in the 80’s and became part of the all-female country
folk group Quartette in the
early ’90’s with other solo artists Cindy Church, Caitlin
Hanford, and Colleen Peterson. After Peterson’s death Gwen Swick replaced her in the group. Sylvia also became an influential country
music journalist, a founding board member of the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings (FACTOR) which helps finance recordings of emerging Canadian artists, and a board
member for the Juno Awards, the
Canadian equivalent of the Grammies. Along the way Sylvia was herself a 7 time
Juno Award nominee, inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame as part of Ian & Sylvia in 1992,
and added to the Canadian Country Music
Hall of Fame on her own in 2003 She was made a member of the prestigious Order of Canada in 1994.
the break-up Ian Tyson first seemed to have a harder time adjusting. His follow-up album to Ol’ Eon failed to chart. He
slowed down his touring and mostly retreated to his horse ranch near the
tiny village of Longview, in
southern Alberta, about 40 miles south of Calgary
in the Canadian Rockies foothills. He was a cowboy for real once again.
1980 Tyson hooked up with Calgary based music promoter and manager Neil MacGonigill. It
was a turning point to a phenomenal second act to his musical
career. He decided to dedicate himself
to resurrecting all but moribund tradition of cowboy music including
the old herding ballads and yodeling songs of the 1930’s and
‘40’s but updated with original music on cowboy, Western, and rodeo themes
beginning with his 1983 release, Old
Corals and Sagebrush.
Tyson receiving his Platinum Record for his classic LP Cowboyography
Between 1987’s Cowboyography and 1996’s he had a string of 5 Canadian hit
albums and dozens of charting singles.
Along with the Chris
LeDoux and a handful of other musicians Western or Cowboy music was
successfully resurrected as genre distinct
from Country music. Radio station formatting the style full or part time sprang up across
Western Canada and the U.S. Although it
has strong regional appeal, there are now fans across both countries and
in the British Isles.
the singles hits off these and subsequent albums are Cowboy Pride, Fifty Years Ago,
Since the Rain, Springtime in Alberta, Nights in Laramie, and Alcohol
in the Bloodstream. Navajo Rug
Wages were named two of the Top
100 Western Songs of All Time by the Western
Writers of America.
2006 and ’07 it looked like Tyson’s career might be over due to extreme vocal cord damage. result of a concert at the Havelock Country Jamboree followed a
year later by a virus contracted
during a flight to Denver. A Calgary doctor who also saved
Adele’s voice, operated on his vocal cords. After months of rehabilitation, Tyson got his voice
back—but not the rich, smooth baritone for which he was noted.
new singing voice lost some of the lower
register but added range on
top. It also gave it a gravely quality. Tyson says he prefers the new
voice as a better rugged match for his Western themes. In 2008 just a year after he thought it was
gone, Tyson recorded his best reviewed album in years, Yellowhead to Yellowstone and
Other Love Stories which garnered a 2009 Canadian Folk Music Awards nomination for Solo Artist of the Year.
honors he has picked up along the way are his membership in the Order of Canada
in 1984, a 1989 induction to the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, a 2003 Governor General’s Award for the Performing
Arts, inclusion in the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2006, and the 2011 Charles M. Russell
Heritage Award presented by the C.M. Russell Museum in Great
Falls, Montana for his tribute song to the artist, The Gift.
Ian Tyson--still a cowboy
2010, Tyson issued his memoir The Long Trail: My Life in the West
co-written with Calgary journalist Jeremy
Klaszus. According to one review the book “alternates between
autobiography and a broader study of [Tyson’s] relationship to the ‘West’—both as
a fading reality and a cultural ideal.”
Tyson is still active, recording, and touring.
He is proud to describe himself as a cantankerous old man who won’t
give up. And he still looks great in