Ian Tyson at the Calgary Folk Festival
Ian Tyson, a Calgary favourite, is playing the folk festival this year. Tyson’s long tenure in the neighbouring area of Pincher Creek means that he’s often found at events and concerts around the city. At 76, Tyson is still going strong. His last release with Stony Plain, Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories, reaches ever-deeper into cowboy lore, local history, broken love, and life as a prairie rancher, further endearing him to a regional audience familiar with the landscape.
Tyson’s early compositions emerged from the bustling Toronto Yorkville streets in the 1960s, long before it was ruled by rich ladies in leopard-print fur toting teacup yorkies. There, he found partner Sylvia Fricker, fresh from small-town Ontario, while both were touring local folk joints like the Purple Onion. The two recorded traditional Canadian ballads and newly composed folksongs, quickly finding a welcome audience in the burgeoning Yorkville scene. They were also the sweethearts of Greenwich Village, partnering with Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. Contemporaries like Dylan and Joan Baez not only celebrated the duo’s songwriting skills by recording covers of their songs, but inspired the two to keep these skills sharp. Upon hearing Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind,” Ian thought “I can do better,” penning the unofficial Canadian anthem “Four Strong Winds” in 1964.
Married by this point and at the height of their career, Ian and Sylvia switched gears to slot themselves among the pioneers of the country-rock movement. Their supergroup, Great Speckled Bird, which also featured drummer N.D. Smart and fellow Calgary Folk Fest performer Amos Garrett, only released one album in 1970, but reigns superior as a fine example of early country and rock crossover. And while country music had always been a part of their vocabulary, for Tyson it became the foundation for the rest of his career.
Making his way back to Alberta in the 1970s, Tyson realized his long time dream of owning a ranch, by living and working in Pincher Creek. His newfound lifestyle became inspiration for his first solo release, Ol’Eon, in 1973, and the album that anchored him in a western tradition, Old Corrals and Sagebrush in 1983. Tyson found an entirely new audience with songs that celebrated the region’s roots and the lifestyle unique to modern cowboys living both north and south of the border. Lyric lines that combine the environmental with the personal, such as “Just like springtime in Alberta/Warm sunny days and skies of blue/Then without a warning/Another winter storm comes raging through/And the mercury’s falling/I’m left all alone/Springtime in Alberta/Chills me to the bone” or that comically detail small-town life in rural Alberta, resonate deeply with the area’s inhabitants. Like the characters of his narrative cowboy songs, Tyson has become a hero among the locals. Couched in the romantic setting where the Rocky Mountains meet the Canadian prairies, Tyson tells it like it is.
I’ve seen Tyson play many times, and perhaps the most exciting for me was seeing Ramblin’ Jack Elliott appear at 70 years old to play in the tribute to Tyson staged at the Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary in 2001. I took my dad and we saw several generations of country and folk musicians pay homage to their musical hero before Tyson joined in for the finale. I imagine some of his biggest fans will likely be at this year’s Festival to see him.
Does anyone have Ian Tyson stories to share?