Ian Tyson
Takes the Gravel Road Less Traveled

By Terry Roland


Ian Tyson is the real deal. What others have imagined, Ian has lived. From a rodeo-riding youth to a broken-hearted 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 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 on to 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 dwelled in harmony. These are the topics of Tyson's finest songs.


Tyson is among the finest and underrated rated 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, an annual event in Elko, Nevada. This inspired the forming of a new country-rock band and renewed interest in writing, recording, and performing. The result is a body of work that is as good and influential as any in the history of North American music.


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 echoes 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 last year's Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories.


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. McCabe's Guitar Shop will have the honor of hosting a rare concert on May 23rd.


In the following interview, Tyson talks more about his music and his life and times.


TERRY: 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: 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 ‘80s, the Elko Nevada Cowboy Poetry Festival in Northern Nevada really helped this along. It's like I 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 to bring back the Ian and Sylvia music as well in my recent shows. It's like you can't just drop all of that, it has to be in there somehow. Does that make sense?


TERRY: Yeah, you came to embrace your early music?


IAN: 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.


TERRY: Tell me about that reinvention.


IAN: 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.


TERRY: It seems that your theme as a writer is consistently about the vanishing west.


IAN: 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 California, there's a lot of open country, especially at the northern end of the state. But, the West you and I love and grew up with can't sustain itself. It gradually is becoming something else.


TERRY: So you think this thing we call the West and all that comes with it really depends on the open space?


IAN: 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 were only the wild horses out there. It was really something to see that and be a part of it before it disappears.


TERRY: 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.


IAN: 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.


TERRY: It seems like the two of you write in a seamless way.


IAN: Yes, we're very much akin. Like twins.


TERRY: What I hear is almost two sides of the same soul.


IAN: Yes, that's right. Tom and I are blood brothers.


TERRY: What do you think about country music today?


IAN: I can't say I listen to it much. I love real country music. It's hard to hear it in today's music. My influences are mostly drawn from the country of the ‘50s and ‘60's.


TERRY: Do you listen to any other kinds of music?


IAN: 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.


TERRY: We're looking forward to seeing you down here in Southern California.


IAN: I am too. We'll be flying into San Diego and then renting a car from there for our trip to L.A. and then to Winters in Northern California. It'll be like old times.


Ian Tyson will be performing at McCabe's Guitar Shop

Saturday, May 23rd, 7:30pm and 10:00pm

3101 Pico Blvd, Santa Monica.

Tickets: 310-828-4497 or www.mccabes.com/condata.html.


Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say ‘dude' at an early age.