As Ian Tyson approaches his 82nd birthday Sept. 25, don’t presume for a minute that he is no more than a tired, over-the-hill folksinger who once penned a great song, “Four Strong Winds,” as part of a long-gone duo Ian & Sylvia. Tyson, a legendary Canadian cowboy, musician, and singer-songwriter, made a rare appearance in New York recently to promote his new album and was a bundle of energy — brash, salty, insightful, firing on all cylinders, and a genuine hoot.
“It’s Gotham City,” he says about New York, where he lived in the 1960s and to where he hadn’t returned in 12-15 years. “After Toronto, it’s the center of the universe.”
Tyson says he was apprehensive coming to New York again, because “I’m an old cowboy. I’m trying to find my way, and it was a little daunting,” he says from his Manhattan hotel room during a lengthy phone interview. “I done good. Even the cops are nice — it never used to be that way.”
Tyson immediately took issue with my Western authenticity when I used my New York pronunciation and told him that I once lived in “Colo-ROD-o.” “That’s not how to say it. It’s Colo-RAD-o,” he corrects me before I sheepishly explain that I adapted my pronunciation for New Yorkers.
Tyson lets the issue lie—probably realizing he had sussed out a native New Yorker with deep affection for the Rocky Mountain state — and begins talking enthusiastically about his new album, Carnero Vaquero, on the Canadian Stony Plain Records label.
In Spanish, carnero is a ram and vaquero a cowboy. Cowboy songs and songs about Western life — with a folk and country underpinning — have been the hallmark of Tyson’s music for decades. He is a Western poet with creative lyrics about love, rural life, and the land and sky he loves.
Carnero Vaquero includes new self-penned songs, two songs co-written with Calgary alternative songwriter Kris Demeanor, and a song he co-wrote with Tom Russell. Tyson wonders whether the album is his grand finale. “It could be my last one,” he says. “Maybe not, but it probably is. It came out of nowhere, and it’s a hell of an album. There was no great master plan, and it started as a demo session.”
Tyson points out that he started writing one song on the album, “Cottonwood Canyon,” as a “nostalgic cowboy song, and it became an anti-fracking song.” He recorded it — and the entire album — in a stone house on his horse ranch in the tiny village of Longview, in southern Alberta, about 40 miles south of Calgary in the Canadian Rockies foothills.
“I live alone in the sticks,” he says. “Longview has a population of about 400, counting the dogs. There are a lot of guys in big hats and in trucks.”
He says legendary Canadian guitarist Amos Garrett, who also records on Stony Plain, is an Alberta neighbor and a good friend. Few Americans know Garrett’s name, but many know his tasty guitar break on Maria Muldaur’s 1974 hit single “Midnight at the Oasis.” “We’ve stylistically gone in different directions,” Tyson says about Garrett, one of the finest guitar players on the planet. “I have great respect for his music, and he has great respect for mine.”
Tyson, his wife, Sylvia Tyson, and Garrett were in a band, Great Speckled Bird, that released one self-tilted and critically acclaimed album in 1970, produced by Todd Rundgren. Other members of the band were pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage, who later made a big name for himself in New Riders of the Purple Sage, and drummer N.D. Smart, who played with Mountain at the Woodstock Festival and later was in the Fallen Angels, Gram Parsons’ band.
Tyson says he hardly remembers the Great Speckled Bird period of his career, which occurred before his break-up with his wife. “It was a good band, and everyone says the album is an underground classic,” Tyson recalls. “But nobody bought the record.”
Great Speckled Bird was part of the Trans-Continental Pop Festival, a raucous trans-Canadian rail tour by numerous musicians who performed concerts in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary during the summer of 1970. The wild train ride and tour, which later became a documentary film, also included Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, the Flying Burrito Brothers, The Band, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, the Buddy Guy Blues Band, and many other musicians.
“I was drunk the whole time,” Tyson remembers. “The last night in Calgary I got into a street fight and broke my hand on a farmer’s head. I connected and then had to play music a few nights later with a broken hand. My drummer was a redneck from southern Ohio, and he mouthed off to a farm boy.”
Ex-Byrds bassist Chris Hillman was also on the rail tour with his band the Flying Burrito Brothers. “I liked the Flying Burrito Brothers,” Tyson says. “Chris Hillman and I have been friends for years and years. He always wanted to be a cowboy but wisely kept it at arm’s length.”
Tyson grew up in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, and became a rodeo rider and cowboy before a musician. He remembers playing early in his career in Vancouver, in a “little rockabilly band” called the Sensational Stripes, on a bill with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Gene Vincent, and Paul Anka. He says Buddy Holly and his band were influential. “I vividly remember the loud, sizzling, popping brown Fender amplifiers,” Tyson says. “They actually weren’t playing that loud, but I thought it was loud and exciting.”
It was 1956, Tyson says, and “I couldn’t play anything. I could play two chords on the fucking guitar. We were on the bill because the musicians’ union local in Vancouver had a stipulation that a local band had to be on the bill.”
Tyson says he “was snake-bit by the rockabilly thing” and then hitchhiked to California and Toronto. There he met Sylvia Fricker, and, in 1959, the two became a duo, Ian & Sylvia. “The folk scene had materialized in Toronto, and there were coffee houses cropping up like weeds,” he recalls. “I got a gig in a black jazz club, and we were terrible. The black musicians didn’t like us, and I don’t blame them.”
Tyson says he was fortunate that the popularity of folk music exploded at that time. A few years later, he and Sylvia moved to New York and met Peter, Paul and Mary’s manager Albert Grossman, who landed them a recording contract with Vanguard Records. Their second album’s title song, “Four Song Winds,” was a big Canadian hit, and the album included Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.”
Grossman also became Dylan’s manager, and Ian & Sylvia, who married in 1964, lived in Greenwich Village near Dylan. Tyson has strong words about Dylan, whom many consider America’s greatest songwriter. “He’s a genius, but he abuses it a lot. He’s an asshole genius.”
Tyson says the best concert he ever saw was a Mark Knopfler show that also featured Dylan as the headline act, in the Calgary Saddledome in October 2012. “I am a huge Mark Knopfler fan,” Tyson says. “He’s as good as it gets, and he was wonderful. He has so much respect and love for the Celtic traditions. That’s where my music comes from. The Celtic songs from the Scots and the Irish got distilled down into cowboy songs.”
But Tyson says Dylan’s performance put a damper on the evening. “Dylan came on and fucked it all up,” the Canadian cowboy says. “That little twerp. He turned up the sound — typical fucking Dylan.”
The Calgary Herald largely agreed with Tyson’s assessment of Knopfler’s performance but raved about Dylan’s set. The newspaper’s review said Knopfler “set a pretty pleasing tone for the evening with a showing that started slowly but built into a beautifully textured and remarkably multicultural 90-minute display of expert musicianship.”
A “steady stream” of people left during Dylan’s set, through he delivered one of his best shows in the “past decade and a half,” the Calgary Herald wrote. Dylan was “in all of his still powerful glory, delivering psalm after ancient psalm, with a remarkable amount of fire and brimstone and still a great deal of meaning.”
Tyson says Suze Rotolo’s book credits him for turning Dylan into a pop artist, but “I don’t remember it.” Rotolo, who died in 2011 and was Dylan’s girlfriend in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, was pictured walking arm-in-arm with him on the front cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
An early influence on Dylan was folk and blues singer Dave Van Ronk, whom Tyson also knew during his Greenwich Village days before he broke up with Sylvia and launched a solo career. Van Ronk, who died in 2002, was a major presence on the American folk scene and was nicknamed “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.”
“I respected Van Ronk,” Tyson says. “Van Ronk was an alpha dog. I’m an alpha wolf. Tom Russell was closer to Dave than I was.”
Though Tyson’s warm baritone has long been praised, he says it took until the late 1990s to develop his voice and ”get what he wanted” out of it. “It took me me a long time to develop the style I wanted — to just be able to rear back and sing unconsciously.”
But then “I wrecked my voice trying to outmuscle a sound system and had to start all over again.” A Calgary doctor, whom Tyson says saved Adele’s voice, operated on Tyson’s vocal cords. “It was like a miracle,” he says. “I can now do vocally what I want to do. I have more highs now than before, and I am trying to get the lows back.”
His new voice is different, but it still is strong and a pleasure to listen to. And his witty, learned Western cowboy comments and stories between songs help light up his performances.
At New York’s City Winery on July 16 — a night billed as the Carnero Vaquero album release show — Tyson’s first words were, “The old cowboy returns to Gotham City — it sounds like a song to me.” Accompanied by an electric bass player Gordon Maxwell and lead acoustic guitarist Lee Warden, Tyson captivated the audience with songs new and old. “You are going to have to hear some new ones whether you like it or not,” he told the audience. “I have a new album out, and it’s getting great reviews. I am thrilled.”
He introduced the fourth song of his set by saying “This is a real old song. I wrote it just east of here — five or six blocks away. Where’s MacDougal Street? This song has been very good to me — it’s paid a lot of alimony.” Then he broke into his classic “Someday Soon,” which Ian & Sylvia recorded in 1964 and was covered by many artists, including Judy Collins, the Kingston Trio, and Suzy Bogguss.
He played the traditional “Old Paint,” calling it “probably the greatest old cowboy song.”
He turned away a request from an audience member, probably the way Groucho Marx would. “If you gave me $50, I probably couldn’t sing it. $75? I probably could.”
Then he played “A Road to Las Cruces” — a song “we get asked for a lot in the West.” The wistful song is on Tyson’s 2005 album Songs from the Gravel Road.
Does the wind still blow in New Mexico?
Silver candelabras yet shine
Is Catherine still the Queen of El Paso
Never to be yours, never to be mine
Out of reach like the pale moon that shines
The road to Las Cruces
With such beautiful Western poetry already written and and birthday number 82 just weeks away, what does he see as his musical legacy?
“A good artist, a great singer who lost his voice and came back — and a writer who changed cowboy music.”