Ian Tyson: Musician, rancher,
storyteller, and Canadian icon
Ian Tyson –Canada’s iconic singer and songwriter– turned 80 in September 2013, but his energy remains undimmed. He is also celebrating the complete recovery of his voice, badly damaged six years ago. Ian was forced to learn, with courage and craftsmanship, to sing with what he called “my new voice.” Two superb albums, Yellowhead to Yellowstone (2008) and Raven Singer (2012), saw a wide range of new songs presented in an intimate, arresting and heart-to-heart voice. Late in 2012, after polyp surgery by throat specialist Tom Gillis, and vocal therapy with Katherine Ardo, Ian's voice is as golden as ever. He continues to supervise his working ranch in southern Alberta as he reflects on a five-decade musical career which has produced some of the most beloved modern cowboy songs. Meanwhile, the songs and stories keep coming and they remain as true as a well-worn saddle. His newest collection is All the Good ‘Uns Vol 2. www.iantyson.com
Ian Tyson walks, stiff-legged, to the centre of the stage. This is a cowboy’s gait; this is the walk of a man who has sustained his share of falls from horses large and small and who knows that the rancher’s life is not the glamorous myth of the old-fashioned western movies.
This is also a preamble to a performance of songs, new ones and old ones, for another audience who reveres an artist who has become an icon — a timeless singer with a bruised voice who tells stories with the unvarnished luster of truth.
That Ian Tyson, at 80, leads two busy, vigorous lives is remarkable enough. Yes, there’s the ranch south of Calgary, in the foothills of the Rockies, with fences to mend, quarter horses to train, cattle to move, land to conserve. And, yes, there are concert stages — from Elko, Nevada to Billings, Montana, from San Francisco to Toronto to New York to Winnipeg and Edmonton and Los Angles and — in any given year — another 30 or 40 cities.
That would seem enough for any one man, but in the first dozen years of the 21st century, he’s released five albums, filmed a music documentary for Canada’s Bravo! television channel (which has earned two international film and television awards), and issued This is My Sky, a two-DVD concert video. Two years ago, he penned a surprising autobiography, The Long Trail: My Life in the West, which continues as a best-seller— it’s sold close to 30,000, copies so far. And he also collaborated with the author of a major book on his early career as half of Canada’s first folk superstar duo, Ian & Sylvia.
Ian Tyson’s story is familiar to most. He learned guitar in hospital, recovering from a bad fall in a rodeo, he upped stakes from Vancouver Island and hitchhiked to Toronto, where he met a young singer from small-town Ontario called Sylvia Fricker. As Ian & Sylvia, they were the Canadian stars of the early ’60s folk boom that gave the world Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, the Clancy Brothers and the Kingston Trio.
Married in 1964, the pair made almost a dozen albums — and wrote some of Canada’s best-loved songs, including Ian’s “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon,” and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind — songs that have all been covered countless times by some of the most famous artists of our time, including Dylan, Neil Young, Judy Collins, and a young Canadian singer the couple mentored in his early days, Gordon Lightfoot.
During the British Invasion, Ian and Sylvia evolved into pioneers of country-rock. Their band, Great Speckled Bird, rivaled the Byrds and other groups which helped create modern country, a decade before the Urban Cowboy phase of contemporary “new traditionalists”.
After hosting a national Canadian television music show from 1970 to 1975, Tyson realized his dream of returning to the Canadian West. The music and marriage of Ian and Sylvia had ended and it was now or never. Disillusioned with the Canadian country music scene, Tyson decided the time had come to return to his first love – training horses in the ranch country of southern Alberta.
After three idyllic years cowboying in the Rockies at Pincher Creek, Tyson recorded the album Old Corrals & Sagebrush, consisting of cowboy songs, both traditional and new. “It was a kind of a musical Christmas card for my friends” he recalls. “We weren’t looking for a ‘hit’ or radio play or anything like that.” Unbeknownst to Tyson and his friends, the cowboy renaissance was about to find expression at the inaugural Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1983; a small coterie of saddle makers, rawhide braiders, cowboy poets and pickers discovered one another in a small cow town in northern Nevada. Tyson was invited to perform his “new western music”— and he’s missed only one or two gatherings in the 30 years since.
He has continued to be honoured for his achievements. After numerous Canadian Country Music Awards, membership in the Juno Awards Hall of Fame — one of five such honours with various industry organizations — he has three honorary Doctorates, and is proudly a member of the Order of Canada. “Four Strong Winds,” in 2006, was chosen Canada’s #1 song of the 20th century by CBC listeners.
And so his life continues. Tough and a man who does not suffer fools lightly, Tyson stares at the future with clear eyes and weather-worn face. Bring it on, he seems to say. Meanwhile, the songs keep coming and the stories they tell are true. Ian Tyson is one of a kind: Authentic and durable. And not done yet. Not by a long shot!