Think I'll go out to Alberta, Weather's good there in the fall. Got some friends that I can go to workin' for
It is one of the most famous opening lines in Canadian song. And for Ian Tyson, the man who penned Four Strong Winds in 1962 and rode the tune to fame as part of the folk duo, Ian & Sylvia, it became something of a prophecy. In the mid-1970s, at a time of both personal and professional turmoil, Tyson decided to abandon the music industry and his old life in Toronto to return to Alberta, where he used to ride the rodeo circuit in the 1950s. He worked for two years as a hired hand at a Pincher Creek ranch before buying his own ranch in the Foothills of the Rockies, southwest of Calgary. It wasn't long, though, before Tyson's musical muse returned, this time with a decidedly western bent. Since then, he has reinvented himself artistically with a series of successful albums featuring what many country music purists consider the best cowboy music ever produced in Canada - or anywhere else for that matter.
The latest instalment in that effort, Lost Herd, is being released this week by Edmonton-based Stony Plain Records. The new CD finds Tyson, now 65, musing about death, religion and, of course, the rapidly fading glory of the western frontier. "This is the life I lead, this is what I know," Tyson told Maclean's as he dunked a grilled-cheese sandwich into a bowl of soup at a roadside diner near his ranch. "I can only write about where I'm coming from." In fact, in an era when country music is in thrall of the slick, urban stylings of the Shania Twains and Garth Brooks, Tyson's music stands out as a reminder of a more basic and thoughtful era. "He is able to lyrically describe a way of life that has almost been forgotten about," says Larry Delaney, editor of the Ottawa-based Country Music News. "That sets him apart from the cookie-cutter country music you hear so much these days. His songs actually have something to say."
So, too, does Tyson. The former folkie has adopted many of the traditional conservative values that are still widely espoused on the open range. Among other things, he supports free trade with the United States and smaller government and opposes Ottawa's move to register firearms. At the same time, though, Tyson is an outspoken environmentalist. To the chagrin of many of his fellow rural Albertans, he helped raise money for the environmental groups who led the unsuccessful protest against the damming of the Oldman River north of Lethbridge in the late 1980s. He continues to speak out on behalf of "green" causes, even if it means publicly criticizing Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, a personal friend. "Ralph, God bless him," says Tyson, "I support him, but he's sure as hell giving protecting the environment a low profile. And if Alberta loses its wilderness, I don't think there's much to recommend it."
Tyson has never been comfortable running with the pack. Born in Victoria in 1933, the second child of George and Margaret Tyson, the young Ian learned to ride horses on a small farm owned by his father, an insurance salesman. As a teenager, Tyson hit the rodeo circuit, but his career was cut short when he mangled his ankle so badly that doctors had to insert three metal pins into his foot. The injury afflicts him to this day.
While convalescing in a Calgary hospital, Tyson learned to play the guitar, starting with Johnny Cash's I Walk The Line. Deeply affected by the footloose spirit of Jack Kerouac's Beat-era novel, On The Road, Tyson later hitchhiked to Toronto, where he hooked up with Sylvia Fricker, an aspiring folk musician from Chatham, Ont. After honing their act - heavy on English and Scottish ballads - in the hip clubs of Toronto's Yorkville district, Ian & Sylvia headed to New York City's Greenwich Village in 1961 at the height of the folk-music boom. After hearing them at Gerde's Folk City club, Albert Grossman - who also managed Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary - secured a recording contract for the Canadian duo. Tyson started writing his own songs, the first of them being Four Strong Winds. As the royalty cheques from cover versions of that song started rolling in, Tyson bought a cattle farm east of Toronto in 1963; he added to the spread several years later after Judy Collins scored a hit with Someday Soon, Tyson's tale of a woman who hopelessly loves an inveterate rodeo rider.
As a hot musical act, Ian & Sylvia burned brightly, but briefly; the British Invasion led by the Beatles spelled the beginning of the end for the folk phenomenon. As a couple, they survived a while longer. They married in 1964 and bought a house in Toronto's tony Rosedale neighbourhood. The following year, their only child, Clay, was born. (Now 33, Clay is pursuing his own career as a singer/songwriter in Toronto.) Over the years, though, their personal and professional differences deepened. Sylvia wanted to be home more, raising their young son; Ian pined for the road and spent as much time as possible out at the ranch raising cattle. The couple divorced in 1975.
After a brief and unsuccessful stab at conquering Nashville, Tyson decided he had had enough of both the music business and Toronto. In 1976, he sold the Ontario ranch and headed west. As he recounts in his 1994 autobiography, I Never Sold the Saddle, he thought he was through with songwriting and performing - and he couldn't have cared less. Tyson describes waking up one morning shortly after landing in the Foothills country and staring at the snow-covered Rockies. "Screw it," he remembers thinking, "I'd rather starve here than live in Toronto."
As it turned out, he wasn't forced to choose. In 1979, Neil Young recorded a new cover version of Four Strong Winds; the resulting royalties allowed Tyson to put a down payment on his own ranch, where he continues to raise cattle and breed rodeo horses. To help support the ranch, he also started playing again, including regular gigs at Calgary's Ranchman's Club. It was there he met his current wife, Twylla, then a waitress and 27 years his junior. Today Twylla, 38, helps tend the ranch along with the Tysons' 13-year-old daughter, Adelita Rose, whom her father proudly describes as "an extraordinarily good cowgirl."
Shortly after returning to Alberta, Tyson joined his friend, photographer Kurt Markus, on some long-distance horse rides into Nevada and other parts of the American western plains. What he saw there, says Tyson, "just blew me away" - unspoiled ranchlands that still looked much as they must have a century before. Tyson began to realize that his spiritual home stretched from Grande Prairie south to the Rio Grande. "That's my turf," he chuckles, "and it's a big one."
In addition to ranching, Tyson became something of a scholar on the changing face of the West, reading every book he could on the subject. When he picked up the guitar again, the music reflected his new preoccupations. His breakthrough album, 1986's Cowboyography, sparkled with tales of chinook breezes blowing off the Rockies' eastern slopes; of cowboy outlaws on the run; of making love on a Navajo rug. Recorded in Calgary for a paltry $37,000, Cowboyography went on to become Tyson's most popular album of all time, earning platinum status in Canada (meaning sales of more than 100,000).
In successive albums, including I Outgrew the Wagon (1989), And Stood There Amazed (1991), and Eighteen Inches of Rain (1994), Tyson has almost single-handedly revived the tradition of cowboy music - a mixture of mournful and joyful ballads about frontier life that reached the zenith of its popularity in the 1930s with "the singing cowboy," Gene Autry. Tyson continues the effort with Lost Herd, even while adding some innovative flourishes. Reflecting a personal fondness for jazz and classical music, he punctuates several of the songs with sax and cello riffs. And as befits someone who just became a senior citizen, intimations of mortality can be heard on tunes like Blue Mountains of Mexico, with its lyrics, "Time like money just disappears/no one knows where it goes/we spend it so recklessly/when we've got nothing but time."
Perhaps the most curious cut on the new CD is Tyson's cover version of the Hollywood chestnut, Over the Rainbow, which Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg originally wrote for Judy Garland in the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz. But sure enough, in Tyson's hands, it sounds like yet another paean to the open plains, where the potential for revival and reinvention is as endless as the horizon: "Somewhere over the rainbow/skies are blue/And the dreams that you dare to dream/really do come true."
Ian Tyson is living his cowboy dream. And through his music, it is there for all to share.
Maclean's February 15, 1999