Deckle edge

Ian Tyson
by Chris Flisher © 1995 /
(first published October 1995 Worcester Phoenix)

Ian Tyson
After a successful career as one of Canada’s pre-eminent folk singers of the 1960s, Ian Tyson, formerly of Ian and Sylvia, hung up his guitar, turned his back on music, and sought the job he often sang of in his some of his most famous songs. It was Judy Collins who recorded the definitive version of Tyson’s song about rodeos and ranch hands titled “Someday Soon.” Later, fellow Canadian, Neil Young covered Ian’s song about Alberta and the high, wide Rockies in “Four Strong Winds.” Aside from these infrequent musical references, Tyson watched the West from afar. However, in 1975 Ian and Sylvia parted ways and Tyson left to answer his gnawing desire to become a working cowboy.

With a 1000 acres and a herd of cattle this singer-cum-rancher established himself as a bona fide cowboy, living out the end of the 1970s punching dogies and roping steer. It was not until 1983 that Tyson returned to music, writing songs about his life on the range. Beginning with Cowboyography, right up to 1994’s Eighteen Inches Of Rain, he gradually built a substantial body of work celebrating the life of the modern cattle puncher.

“I have always been attracted to the cowboy life ever since I was a kid,” says Tyson from his publicist’s office during a visit to Music City. “I read the stories of Will James and loved the paintings of Charlie Russell. And now I write about this because I live this way and I feel like I’ve been chosen to do this as a historian of the West and a chronicler of this lifestyle. It has reached a point where it’s developed its own responsibilities.”

Tyson spends his life divided between his Alberta ranch and touring on the road. Despite their apparent dissimilarities he finds that these two careers work well together. “Ranching is seasonal,” says the 60-plus year old singing cowboy. “The ranch calls me at certain times of the year, especially in the spring and summer. But in the fall and winter I try to take to the road and bring out my songs. Most of the people who come to see me are themselves working ranchers,” he offers chuckling, “At least out West.”

Rodeo riders, cattle punchers, the loneliness of the open plains, and the drama of life in the West are themes that repeatedly populate Tyson’s songs. And like the titles of his albums—Cowboyography, Old Corrals and Sagebrush, I Outgrew the Wagon, Eighteen Inches of Rain—Tyson never strays far from documenting a life that appears equally authentic, compelling, and ironically political. “It’s funny,” he chuckles, “All those years I spent roving around as a “folk-singer” I was never one for politics, now here I am dealing with it and I hope to use my influences to save the West. But I say, ‘Better late than never.’ You see, cowboys will be around for a long time. You cannot mechanize what they do. Somebody has got to go out, ride that horse, and herd the cattle.”

Despite contemporary Nashville’s love affair with hats, boots, and all things pseudo-Western, it becomes screamingly apparent after listening to Tyson how far off the mark they are. The glitzy baubles and bangles of Nashville cowboys and cowgirls fall flat next to the genuine article. In short, it took this sometime-cowboy to put the Western back in country. “There really is no one else who does this kind of music today. Marty Robbins did it years ago and of course there were the singing cowboys of Hollywood like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter, but then there was nothing until I started doing it.”

Before he strapped on his chaps Tyson, along with Gordon Lightfoot, Judy Collins, and Joni Mitchell, represented Canada’s considerable contribution to the folk music scene of the 1960s. Moving to Greenwich Village and frequently performing alongside a then-young Bob Dylan, Ian gradually established a name for himself among the writers of the time. “It’s funny but, we were all chasing Dylan,” he admits, continuing, “He took us away from traditional folk balladry and more towards the political, even though I was pretty apolitical back then. I just tried to do what everyone else was doing back then—Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen—we were all trying to be like him.”

Leading a life that has seemingly opposing goals, lifestyles, and rewards, Tyson sees a larger picture and finds complete satisfaction. “I have a dual life that has a certain harmony to it. I’ve had two separate careers in music, one with Sylvia and then with my more recent stuff, and I’ve been able to follow one of my childhood dreams.”

“But, you know,” he pauses, “The ranch brings the music out of me, it’s my source. Without one there would not be the other.”

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge