The auditorium was a sea of cowboy hats in a variety of styles—High Sierra, Ridgetop and Cattleman. The ranchers, cowhands and wives were assembled last month in a convention centre in northern Nevada for a tribute to the 19th-century American western artist Charles Russell. But the first performer to step onstage was not an American--it was Canada’s Ian Tyson. With his white cowboy hat tipped at a rakish angle and a white kerchief tied flamboyantly around his neck, Tyson fit right in. Carrying an acoustic guitar and accompanied by his band, the Chinook Arch Riders, the Albertan told the audience, It’s great to be back in Elko--feels just like home.” And he meant it. It was the fourth year that Tyson had travelled from his ranch near Longview, Alta., 70 km southwest of Calgary, to the small Nevada town for an annual festival called the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Tyson sang his loving portrait of Russell, “The Gift,” to an appreciative audience. Then he and his band rushed back across town to a large casino-hotel, where Tyson performed songs about rodeo star Casey Tibbs and cowboy author Will James. The singer said later: “I want to be a western historian. Those guys are my heroes and deserve to have songs written about them.”
At 55, Tyson is something of a hero himself. Already a legend in Canadian music--best known for such classics as “Four Strong Winds,” “Someday Soon” and “Summer Wages,” which he wrote and sang during the 1960s in the popular folk duo Ian and Sylvia—Tyson has recently fought his way back from obscurity with distinctive songs that accentuate the western side of country-and-western music. In fact, he has an intimate knowledge of cowboy life: Tyson has been running a 160-acre ranch in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains for 10 years. And by documenting that world in all its rugged romance, he has won fans both among buckaroos, for whom he is a champion, and among city slickers who find his brand of music refreshingly old-fashioned.
With a voice that is now as smoothly textured as a well-worn saddle, Tyson has never sounded better. Last year, he thrilled a live audience and millions of TV viewers with his performance at the opening ceremony of the Calgary Winter Olympics. In January, Canadian sales of his third album of western music, Cowboyography, hit the 50,000 mark, qualifying for a gold record award. And this month, Tyson will rope in even more attention as he releases his latest album, I Outgrew the Wagon, and tours Ontario, with performances this month in St. Catharines, Hamilton and Toronto, before heading west to Winnipeg and then British Columbia in March. Said David Wilkie, a former member of Tyson’s band and now leader of his own group, the Great Western Orchestra: “Ian’s a great singer with a unique vision of the West. To get that message across to an urban audience is quite an achievement.”
Tyson’s secret is that, unlike so many urban cowboys singing country music, he comes by his subject matter honestly. After breaking up with his singing partner and first wife, Sylvia, in 1975, Tyson left the confines of downtown Toronto for the open spaces of southern Alberta. There, with the royalties from other artists’ versions of his songs--especially Neil Young’s recording of “Four Strong Winds”—he bought his ranch and returned to a passion he developed as a child in British Columbia: horses. Soon he became a top trainer of cutting horses, specially bred quarter horses used to separate cattle from a herd. Tyson now has 15 of them, which he exercises every day, and a small herd of cattle to help in their training. These days, Tyson says, he is trying to strike a balance between running the ranch, competing in the occasional cutting-horse contest (he has won several amateur competitions in both Canada and the United States) and continuing to make music.
But more and more, Tyson’s music is gaining the upper hand. His first two cowboy albums, Old Corrals and Sagebrush (1983) and Ian Tyson (1984), won accolades from critics. And the success of Cowboyography (1986)--which includes the hit singles “Fifty Years Ago” and “Navajo Rug” and earned him a 1987 Juno Award for top male country vocalist—has drawn Tyson back into the limelight. I Outgrew the Wagon has the ingredients to do even better. The album features a crisp remake of “Four Strong Winds” as well as new songs about love, betrayal and a chilly cattle drive, all of them rich in narrative detail. The first single, “Irving Berlin (Is 100 Years Old Today),” is as much about the spectre of drought and marital difficulties as it is a tribute to a master songwriter. And the chorus of “Casey Tibbs” cleverly captures a daredevil on horseback: “The chaps were purple/The Cadillac was purple/The sky was 1950 blue/Green was the color/Of the greenback dollar/He spurred those broncs with a whoop and a holler/Casey the rainbow rider/There’ll never be another like you.”
Tyson says that he found his true identity when his cowboy life and his music career merged. “Ian always aspired to be a cowboy,” said his former wife, Sylvia, who is now pursuing her own solo career. Certainly, Tyson exuded the bravado of a rodeo champ onstage at Stockmen’s Motor Hotel in Elko, a town of 12,000 surrounded by sagebrush hills and boasting three casinos and five legal brothels. Moving swiftly through a repertoire of western swing, waltzes, shuffles, bluegrass and what Tyson calls “cow-reggae,” the lean six-footer, who has the good looks of a well-aged movie star, complimented the couples on the dance floor and offered to autograph cassette tapes of I Outgrew the Wagon after the show.
The next day, driving around Elko in his pickup truck—a Ford Lariat with a “Cowboy Classics” insignia on the side—Tyson was clearly riding high. Indulging in some chewing tobacco, he declared, “I’m the freest son-of-a-bitch I know—the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.” Later, in his hotel room, he pulled off his boots, poured some red wine and said: “I’m a good songwriter and a good singer. And I’m a cowboy, so I don’t have to worry about the authenticity of these songs.”
Although Tyson cannot claim to have been born a cowboy, his heritage comes pretty close. His father, George Dawson Tyson, migrated to Alberta from England in 1906 and found work on ranches near what was then the frontier town of Calgary. By the time Ian and his older sister, Jean, were born, George Tyson had moved to Victoria, B.C., married Margaret Campbell and hung up his spurs to sell insurance. Still, Ian inherited a love of horses from his eccentric father, who took up polo, and a romantic view of the cowboy life—instilled by George’s tall tales and the Will James books he gave his son. During high school, Ian began riding in amateur rodeos on weekends. Then, after graduating, he went to work in the B.C. logging industry and followed the rodeo circuit. But, at his parents’ suggestion, he enrolled at the Vancouver School of Art and, after breaking an ankle in a rodeo, took up the guitar.
As a frustrated, out-of-work commercial artist with aspirations to become a musician, Tyson hitchhiked to Toronto in 1958. By day, he worked as a graphic artist—the Resdan dandruff-shampoo bottle still bears his design. By night, he joined such young folksingers as Don Francks and Gordon Lightfoot in local coffeehouses. When he was introduced to Sylvia Fricker, from Chatham, Ont., Tyson found himself a singing partner to complement his voice. In 1961, the two travelled to New York City, where they quickly became the darlings of the burgeoning folk-music scene. Within two months, Ian and Sylvia had landed contracts with Vanguard Records and with manager Albert Grossman, who then represented Peter, Paul and Mary and, later, Bob Dylan. Recalls Tyson: “We blew them away. We had a unique sound and the Americans simply picked up on it first.”
Riding the folk-music wave during the 1960s, Ian and Sylvia became recording artists and performers who headlined major music festivals on both sides of the border.
Decidedly apolitical, they sang a mix of blues, bluegrass and traditional folk ballads. They married in 1964, and some of their best songs, including Sylvia’s You Were on My Mind, became hits for other artists. But by the late 1960s, The Beatles had changed listening tastes, and Ian and Sylvia’s music evolved away from folk music. Like their American counterparts in The Byrds, they pioneered country-rock with their own band, Great Speckled Bird. According to Sylvia, the fusion sound was “ahead of its time” and failed to catch on commercially. Indeed, the group’s self-titled 1969 album—now out of print—remains a rare classic worth up to $250 among collectors.
Without television, the 1970s would have been lean years for Tyson. As host with Sylvia of Nashville North, a weekly CTV series, and then of The Ian Tyson Show, with Sylvia as an occasional guest, Tyson became a fixture on the national airwaves. By 1975, he and Sylvia—who have a son, Clay, now 22—had drifted apart and divorced. And although Tyson had bought a farm in Newtonville, Ont., he yearned for the West. Quitting his TV show, he moved out to Alberta, fulfilling the prophecy of his song, “Four Strong Winds,” written a decade earlier (“Think I’ll go out to Alberta/Weather’s good there in the fall/Got some friends that I can go/To working for”). After working at a friend’s ranch in Pincher Creek, he settled outside of Longview.
Still, even with his ranch, a three-bedroom cedar-log cabin and a stable of horses, Tyson says that he was unhappy. Musically, he now admits, he was in a slump. Performing on weekends at the Ranchman’s bar in Calgary, Tyson was dispirited by the sometimes-rowdy audience. Recalled Tyson: “It was turning me into an alcoholic. The only way I could pump myself up for the rednecks and the fighting was to get drunk.” For a time, he put his guitar away altogether. Then Tyson met the still-teenage Twylla Biblow, a waitress at the Ranchman’s who eventually moved in with him. At her encouragement one evening, he performed some of the old western songs from Ian and Sylvia days for guests at their home. Everyone was so excited at the sound that Tyson decided to record Old Corrals at the ranch, using local musicians.
Tyson says that his musical comeback is especially satisfying because after he moved out West, “the music establishment really wrote me off.” Added the singer: “They just said, ‘Oh, so Tyson wants to be a loner, eh? All right, we’ll show him how that works.’” He has financed his recent recordings independently—with help from a Calgary car dealer and a millionaire Texas rancher—organized his own mail-order system and is now showing a healthy profit. He says that his two backers each expect to get back their investments of $15,000 and make $30,000 profit from Cowboyography. “It was a totally grassroots Alberta record,” Tyson added, “and I’m proud of that.” Now, though his licensing deal with Edmonton-based Stony Plain Records, Tyson’s albums are distributed in Canada by a major label, WEA Music. And his cowboy music is finding its way to the Far East and Europe (Tyson’s appearance at the Winter Olympics led to a deal with East Germany, where only a few country artists’ recordings are available).
Now married to Twylla, 29, and with a daughter, Adelita Rose, 3, Tyson has adopted traditional conservative values befitting a cowboy. He favors free trade (“cowboy culture has always run north-south”) and the death penalty (“Ted Bundy got what he deserved”) and strongly opposes farm subsidies (“Trudeau was right, farmers are a bunch of whiners”). Last year, the Reform party of Western Canada approached him to run in the federal election, but he declined. And, when it comes to his music, former band members say that Tyson is an authoritarian who calls all the shots and demands total dedication.
An individualist in the true cowboy tradition, Tyson likes to challenge authority—especially when it comes to environmental issues. Two years ago, he and some neighboring ranchers successfully led a movement to block the defence department from purchasing 8,000 acres in southern Alberta to use as a training ground. Now, encouraged by that success, he plans to organize opposition to the proposed damming on the Oldman River north of Lethbridge, one of the province’s last unspoiled rivers. Said Tyson: “Our poor old world is dying. If we all clean up our own backyards, we might stand a chance.”
But Tyson’s chief passion remains his music and cowboys. For the buckaroos who gathered last month in Elko, he has become the historian of a dying breed. Said Tyson: “Cowboys are our mythic and real-life heroes, a unique people who go completely against the North American grain of economic security and material acquisition. It’s like a calling.” And whether he is singing about rodeo stars or cowboy artists like himself, about herding cattle or riding cutting horses, Tyson has found his home on the range.
Maclean's 13 February 1989