There are tons of country singers posing as cowboys, but Ian Tyson is one of the few who are the genuine article. He was a rodeo competitor in his late teens and early twenties. In fact, he learned to play the guitar while recovering from an injury during a rodeo. For those not familiar with Tyson, he first came on the music scene in the early to mid sixties as part of the Greenwich Village branch of the folk music boom. With his girl friend and eventual wife, the native of western Canada came to New York via Toronto, By 1961, the pair were performing as a duo known as Ian and Sylvia on their way to becoming one of the top four or five folk acts. As their career gained traction, he wrote two of the most iconic, enduring songs of the period: “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon.” Both were recorded by multiple artists and sung around campfires for years and years. Those two songs alone make him a musician worth following.
Eventually, the folk boom subsided. Some folks singers moved into rock like Dylan. A few moved into country. Others returned to folk albeit with a much lower profile and smaller audiences. Ian and Sylvia eventually amicably split up. He returned to his ranch in western Canada. After a brief hiatus, he began to build a reinvented career singing country and cowboy songs from his base in Alberta. By 1989, he was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.
Of course his exposure in the US was relatively limited during this period, but he did gain some recognition when Jerry Jeff Walker recorded one of Ian’s songs, “Navajo Rug.” This became one of Jerry Jeff’s biggest crowd pleasers, and many of his fans discovered (or rediscovered) Ian Tyson as a result. And sampling his work from the late eighties and on into the 21st century delivers hours of pleasure.
Ian Tyson – Live At Longview
Tyson always had a warm, extraordinarily appealing voice. He also has a demeanor that draws people to him, making his performances seem like very personal interaction with every audience member. That’s why I recommend his 2002 release Live At Longview as the best play to start getting acquainted with his music from the second stage of his career. The set list is an excellent cross section of his repertoire starting with “Navajo Rug.” And, of course, it includes “Someday Soon” which was a huge hit for Judy Collins in the sixties and then resurfaced as a hit for Suzy Boggus in the nineties. I originally planned to insert the album version of “Someday Soon” here, but then I ran across this clip from a 1986 reunion concert by Ian and Sylvia joined on the song by the lustrous Judy Collins.
All of the songs but one were written by Tyson, with two – “Navajo Rug” and “Sorta Together” – co-written with Tom Russell, another wonderful songwriter I’ll feature in a future post. Most of the tunes are connected to the cowboy life one way or the other. As a wonderful surprise, he takes one detour and jumps into a western swing version of the old Rodgers and Hart chestnut “Blue Moon.” All in all the crowd seems totally enthralled throughout the program, and I think you will be too.
Ian Tyson – Carnero Vaquero
Sadly, Tyson suffered an injury and illness which severely impacted his vocal chords several years ago. The good news is that after years of treatment and therapy, and by teaching himself how to sing again, he has recovered. He’s now in his eighties and continues working on his vocal recovery, so his voice is not as supple as before. Still it’s warm and engaging, and he’s put it to good use with his most recent album from 2015. And he’s still working on his ranch, a cowboy to the end. In some of his new songs, he laments the changes encroaching on his beloved west.
Here’s another of my favorite Ian Tyson songs with a humorous intoduction in which he tells the story of writing “Four Strong Winds.”
I’ll close the post with what my seem an odd song choice by Ian Tyson, but it’s one that he manages to fit seamlessly into his cowboy repertoire.