A real Canadian cowboy who was also a folk, country rock, and country pioneer.
Canadian cowboy, rancher, and musical icon Ian Tyson died on 29th December 2022, at his Longview, Alberta, ranch following recent ongoing heart-related health issues. Younger listeners may have heard the name Ian Tyson and be aware of his songwriting talents, but not everyone will necessarily appreciate how groundbreaking his work with his first wife as Ian & Sylvia actually was, even if the perspective of over fifty years has dulled the sense of innovation. He was the first Canadian of the folk generation to make it in the USA providing the blueprint for fellow Canuks Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to name a few. His ‘Four Strong Winds’ has been recorded by countless folk, country, and rock’n’roll acts including Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who also played it as part of his appearance on The Band’s ‘The Last Waltz’. For the last forty years of his career, Ian Tyson returned to the country and cowboy music that has been his original inspiration.
Ian Tyson was born on 25th September 1933, in Victoria, British Columbia, and he became a rodeo rider in his teens. Fate took a hand when he was injured, and he took up the guitar during his recovery, and he subsequently became a full-time folksinger in 1959 and worked with Sylvia Fricker in Toronto. Ian & Sylvia moved to New York, eventually marrying in 1964, and came to the attention of Albert Grossman who landed them a contract with Vanguard Records with their debut album ‘Ian & Sylvia’ being released in 1962, quickly followed by 1963’s ‘Four Strong Winds’. Ian & Sylvia proved to be particularly influential folk artists with their innovative mix of covers from outside the then traditional folk catalogue, including the new emerging songwriters like Bob Dylan, and increasingly their own compositions. ‘Four String Winds’ was eventually voted the greatest Canadian song ever in 2005 by a Canadian radio programme. Their choice of songs wasn’t their only innovation, they were the first folk revival act to feature male and female lead vocals, something that proved inspirational to not only the Mamas and the Papas, but also Jefferson Airplane and the UK’s own Fairport Convention to name only a few.
Ian & Sylvia were also at the vanguard of bringing country and rock music together when they moved to Nashville and recorded 1968’s ‘Nashville’ with local pickers before The Byrds recorded ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’. In 1969 Ian & Sylvia formed Great Speckled Bird to further their country rock aspirations and joined the Festival Express which toured Canada by train in 1970 with The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Flying Burrito Brothers, The Band, and Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. 1970’s ‘Great Speckled Bird’ was recorded in Nashville with Canadian guitar virtuoso Amos Garrett, future New Rider Buddy Cage on pedal steel guitar, future Fallen Angel N. D. Smart on drums, and Nashville musicians David Briggs and Norbert Putnam, and it was a certain Todd Rundgren’s first production assignment. Ian & Sylvia hosted a Canadian national TV show in the early ‘70s which featured Great Speckled Bird. Despite now being regarded as a key recording in the development of country rock, ‘The Great Speckled Bird’ failed to sell in any significant quantities, and Ian & Sylvia finally split both professionally, and personally, in 1975. In 1983 Ian Tyson released his first cowboy album ‘Old Corrals and Sagebrush’ to critical acclaim, and he was inducted into The Canadian Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1989, releasing a steady stream of albums to critical acclaim until 2015, despite damaging his vocal chords in 2006 which permanently changed his vocals, which he now described as “gravelly”. While his later work was inspired by his ranch life on the Canadian prairies, he still managed to maintain his songwriting skills which meant his songs weren’t just simple cowboy tunes.
Ian Tyson’s influence on Canadian music, particularly Canadian country music is incalculable, and when you add to this his influence on the folk revival and the development of country rock with his first wife Sylvia, you begin to get a sense of his significant influence on what subsequently became americana. If some listeners are of the view that his earlier recordings don’t sound that innovative when listened to with modern ears, we have to remember that is because his music changed the sound of folk, country rock, and Canadian country forever.