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Ian Tyson Takes the Gravel Road Less Travelled
Written by Terry Roland
Ian Tyson is the real deal. What others have imagined, Ian has lived. From a rodeo-riding youth to a brokenhearted gentleman and a prairie poet. He is a cowboy historian, a northern-sky storyteller and although he was born and raised in Canada, he's as American as a buffalo. He's a romantic and a realist, a rancher and a true singing cowboy, riding out on a what he calls a fenceless plain; he's the one Gene Autry only wished he could have been. Tyson's songs are strewn with story, lore, and legends. In some ways he personifies the quietly disappearing prairie wind-song. Still, he takes daily walks along his own personal gravel road to his cabin at the end of a box canyon. There he continues to write his songs about lovers, wolf packs, wild horses, rodeo children, adventures on a Navajo rug, and the joys of Canadian whiskey.
As we talked in a recent
phone interview, a significant word kept coming into our conversation:
space. In 1909, his Welsh immigrant father first stepped onto Canadian
soil and experienced the reality of that western prairie wide-open space.
It's easy to forget that there was a time when the untamed frontier was
considered another planet to the uninitiated city-dweller. Tyson's father
was this kind of person. But he stayed and the blood and yearning for the
wilderness was passed on to him. He described it as the unfenced West,
the place where wild horses roam free - the now disappearing wild land
where man and beast
Tyson is among the finest and most underrated of North American singer-songwriters. After years in the rodeo circuit, beginning when he was 18, he left it behind due to an injury. It was then that he began his musical career at age 24. With his partner and eventual wife, Sylvia Fricker, they would become known as Ian and Sylvia. They were innovators in the urban folk renewal of the early '60s as well as country-rock pioneers with their band, Great Speckled Bird. With songs like "You Were on My Mind," recorded by We Five; "Four Strong Winds," made popular by Bobby Bare; and the ever classic "Someday Soon," memorably recorded by Judy Collins; they were able to influence the direction of popular music during the '60s.
In the early '70s, after
Ian and Sylvia split, professionally and personally, Tyson left the music
scene to pursue the real life of a cowboy on a ranch in a small town south
of Alberta. He fulfilled his dream of raising horses and even took part
in trail drives. He also returned to the rodeo. In the mid-'80s, he was
re-discovered by way of the Elko Cowboy Poetry Festival, which met once
a year in Elko, Nevada. This inspired the forming of a new country-rock
When Tyson began recording
again, he inspired the New Traditionalist movement in mainstream country
radio, launching the careers of Randy Travis, George Straight, and Garth
Brooks. With these and other country music superstars, it's easy to hear
echos of Ian Tyson. However, going directly to the source is the most satisfying.
This has proved true with a long list of now-classic albums, including
Cowboyography, 18 Inches of Rain, Songs Along a Gravel Road, and
Today Tyson remains a country renaissance cowboy singer-songwriter who spends his time writing songs, recording, and occasionally touring. He has recently released a beautifully illustrated children's book Primera: The Story of the Mustangs. His collaborations with songwriter Tom Russell have yielded two widely acknowledged classic songs, "Navajo Rug" and "Canadian Whiskey." San Diego's Acoustic Music Series will have the honor of hosting a rare concert on May 22; his affection for the venue is clear in the song, "Blaino's Song" (from Yellowhead to Yellowstone):
"The tall palms of San Diego
Silhouetted in the rain
In a church almost celestial
We sang the old songs once again"
In the following interview, Tyson talks more about his music and his life and times.
Roland: In today's culture we've lost touch with the importance of storytelling. We depend on mass media, television, and movies to tell stories for us. Do you think you've had some influence in helping storytelling to stay alive?
Ian Tyson: I'm not sure if
I have. I know I have listeners and fans from all over the world. They've
been very faithful. I've released ten western albums with 90 percent of
the songs mine. Back in the 'eighties, the Elko Nevada Cowboy Poetry Festival
in Northern Nevada really helped this along. It's like I've had two careers.
There were the Ian and Sylvia days and then this new music, which had no
association to '60s music. It was kind of nice. But, I've found a way
Roland: Yeah, you came to embrace your early music?
Tyson: I wouldn't say embrace. That's not the right word. I'd say I've accepted it. During those years, I was identified with the name Ian and Sylvia. My acceptance happened after I'd reinvented myself in an authentic way. I came to be so identified with that period of my career, it was hard to walk out of the shadow of that. But, finally, I was able to move on.
Roland: Tell me about that reinvention.
Tyson: If you're familiar with my contemporary music, you can hear what I mean. Some of the reviews of my new album, Yellowhead to Yellowstone, have been really nice and point out that the songs are an extension of old Scottish-Irish ballads that had been transported to the cowboy culture. There's a connection there. Listening to my solo work, it's easy to imagine those immigrants as they first experienced the fenceless West.
Roland: It seems that your theme as a writer is consistently about the vanishing West.
Tyson: Yes, that's right.
It's certainly covered in most of my songs. It's a big part of what I do.
There's a sense of solitude that many of us feel who are from these parts
of the world. The more populations come in, the less this culture will
survive. For younger people today who are in the ranching culture, this
way of life is really under attack. The lifestyle starts to disappear because
of the population increase, that big, empty, romantic West disappears.
You know, in
Roland: So you think this thing we call the West and all that comes with it really depends on the open space?
Tyson: Yes, that's right. And really, that's the life I've lived. There had to be wide open spaces. The more encroachment on this, the less wilderness can live. And, actually, I had the experience of the fenceless West in the wilder parts of northern Nevada. There are only the wild horses out there. It was really something to see that and be a part of it before it disappears.
Roland: For me, some of the best country songs written in over the past 30 years have been yours. Some, like "Canadian Whiskey" and "Navajo Rug," were written with Tom Russell. Tell me about your friendship.
Tyson: Yes, Tom is a good friend. Of course, we've written songs together. He has his own ranch out in the urban West there near El Paso. We've enjoyed writing together and speak the same language.
Roland: It seems like the two of you write in a seamless way.
Tyson: Yes, we're very much akin. Like twins.
Roland: What I hear is almost two sides of the same soul.
Tyson: Yes, that's right. Tom and I are blood brothers.
Roland: What do you think about country music today?
Tyson: I can't say I listen to it much. I love real country music. It's hard to hear it in today's country music. My influences are mostly drawn from the country of the '50s and '60's.
Roland: Do you listen to any other kinds of music?
Tyson: Yes. I'm really eclectic. I love Miles Davis and his music from the '60s. Also, I like Mark Knopfler, the lead guitarist for Dire Straits. He can really play.
Roland: We're looking forward to seeing you down here in Southern California.
Tyson: I am too. We'll be flying into San Diego and then renting a car from there for a trip up to northern California. It'll be like old times.
Ian Tyson performs at Acoustic
Music San Diego on Friday, May 22, 7:30pm. The venue is located at 4650
Mansfield St., San Diego 92116.