Classic Americana Albums: Great Speckled Bird “Great Speckled Bird”

Ampex A-10103, 1969

Great Speckled Bird cover art

Great Speckled Bird cover artUntil the ‘Festival Express’ movie was finally released on DVD in 2004, Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s band, Great Speckled Bird, had been an act known mainly by collectors and as the group Buddy Cage left to join the New Riders of Purple Sage as Jerry Garcia’s permanent replacement.  Subsequent interest resulted in a CD reissue on Collectors Choice in 2006.

Ian & Sylvia, legends of the Canadian folk scene, recorded a couple of albums in Nashville in the late 1960s – ‘Nashville’ and ‘Full Circle’ – featuring some of the same session players who worked with Bob Dylan on ‘John Wesley Harding’ and ‘Nashville Skyline’ and many other great records found on AUK readers’ shelves.

The Tysons were keen to form a band which would allow them to play in this style on the road which led to the formation of Great Speckled Bird in 1969.  Named for the Roy Acuff standard, the band at the time of the recording comprised the Tysons, Cage (pedal steel), Amos Garrett (guitar), ND Smart II (drums) and Ken Kalmusky (bass).  Kalmusky, however, had left the group prior to recording and bass duties were picked up by Norbert Putnam.  The band was also supplemented on keyboards by fellow session player David Briggs, like Putnam a Muscle Shoals alumnus.  Todd Rundgren, who shared a manager, Albert Grossman, with the Tysons, took the producer’s chair.

The songs were mainly written by the Tysons, together and separately, while Garrett gets a co-writing credit on ‘Rio Grande’. There is also a cover of ‘Crazy Arms’ a standard covered by many acts over the years.

The album opens with ‘Love What You’re Doing Child’ which has a definite Little Feat / Delaney and Bonnie feel to it before going into ‘Calgary‘, a song in the classic Ian Tyson mold.  Sylvia’s ‘Truckers Café’ is the first really country-sounding song with its opening couplet “I work every day in a trucker’s café, And at night I serve drinks in a bar” and chorus which concludes “For I’m working from morning to midnight And I’m weeping from midnight to dawn”.

‘Long Time to Get Old’ is a country stomp while ‘Flies In The Bottle’ returns to ‘Calgary’s theme of the transitory oil field worker with Briggs’ organ and Cage’s pedal steel providing a soft bed to the tune. ‘Bloodshot Beholder’ is the final track on what would have been Side 1 of the album and is a classic country rocker with a sweet solo from Garrett.

Side 2 begins with ‘Crazy Arms’ following Lucille Starr’s French / English version.  A later version of Great Speckled Bird (minus Garrett) performed this on the Johnny Cash show.

Ian’s ‘This Dream’ is a softly sung classic country torch ballad with some sweet understated playing from Briggs, Garrett and Cage while ‘Smiling Wine’ nicely subverts the country cliché describing a lover in terms of a booze substitute, even if the imagery verges into Dali territory.

Ian returns to the road for one of his epic landscapes with ‘Rio Grande’ featuring some fine acoustic guitar work by co-writer Garrett.  The song was included on Tom Russell’s 2017 Tysons’ tribute record.

After the brief twangy ‘Disappearing Woman’, the album draws to a close with ‘We Sail’ a maritime hymnal with a choral vocal and church style keys from Briggs.  The same verse is repeated throughout with the variety coming from the vocal arrangement.

Great Speckled Bird continued with a revolving door of players with Ian and Sylvia through the mid 70s.  Cage was replaced by Ben Keith while the other side of that door seems to have been the Bearsville/ Woodstock axis. ND Smart of course went on to provide the drums on two tracks on Gram Parsons’ ‘Grievous Angel’ and was a member of the Fallen Angels touring band.

‘Great Speckled Bird’ is a fine early Canadian country rock record and the band’s involvement in the Festival Express tour along with the Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin and Delaney and Bonnie places them squarely at the Big Bang of Americana.

Footnote: for the hardier reader there is some grainy footage of Ian and Sylvia and other members of the Festival Express tour jamming on CC Rider.

About Richard Parkinson 91 Articles
London based self-diagnosed music junkie with tastes extending to all points of big tent americana and beyond. Fan of acts and songs rather than genres.
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Martin Johnson

Good choice Richard. We lost Ian Tyson at the end of 2022. AUK’s obit is here


Amos Garrett’s playing on this record was revolutionary.