Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Ian Tyson—The Damned Ol’ Cowboy Who Keeps Rolling On

Ian Tyson--the old cowboy still sings and looks good doing it.

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!

Tyson 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. 

Taken 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 Vancouver.

When 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.

Sylvia 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.

In 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.

The 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.

It 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. 

Ian & 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.

Their 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.

Ian & Sylvia’s follow up album recorded in ’64 and released early the next year was Early 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.

In 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.

By 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.

In 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.

In 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.

Tyson’s 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.

Despite 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.

It 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. 

The 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 less frequently.

Meanwhile, 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 market them.

Their 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. 

The 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.

Sylvia 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.

After 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.

In 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.

Among 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 and Summer Wages were named two of the Top 100 Western Songs of All Time by the Western Writers of America.

In 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.

His 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.

Other 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

In 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.”

At 87 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 a Stetson.


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