American Cowboy Poetry Month | Ian Tyson

Ian Tyson talks to American Cowboy magazine about music, horses, and life.
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Ian Tyson talks to American Cowboy magazine about music, horses, and life.
Photo courtesy of Hesh Photo

The role of music in our lives is a curious one. We use it to fill idle hours, yet it also inspires us. I’m often befuddled by the lyrics that pop into my head in certain situations. Warming myself by the stove on a winter morning, Jimi Hendrix enters my brain. On my long commute home from the office, it might be Eddie Rabbitt. Obviously, music can evoke particular memories and experiences, but it can be more significant than that. More than a memory or distraction, music often leads me to consider the deeper questions of life.

When I’m horseback, the music selection narrows. Somehow, my brain has generated a cowboy song playlist and, as my legs fork a horse, my mind hits shuffle. More often than not, it’s Ian Tyson’s voice I hear.

I’m sure I’m not alone. But with such resonate songs, I’ve always wondered how he put it all together. Where does the inspiration come from and how does it pour itself into a song?

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I had the chance to visit with him prior to a show this past summer on a ranch outside of Colorado Springs. I discovered Tyson fans owe a debt of gratitude to horses—more specifically broncs—that Tyson’s time adrift has been as important as his prolific and successful periods, and that Johnny Cash has always been a part of his career. From the beginning, Tyson’s music has been inspired, motivated by, and informed by horses and heartaches.

He steadfastly refuses to talk about the heartaches. I think that’s fair. That he shares what he does in his songs is gift enough. Besides, the horses are plenty interesting.

I don’t remember the first time I heard an Ian Tyson song. I do remember the first time I thought about an Ian Tyson song. The Old Corrals and Sagebrush album was released in 1983, and I was still a boy, but hearing Tyson sing the traditional cowboy tune, “Sierra Peaks” puzzled me. I remember asking a friend of my dad’s what a “reata man” was.

There’s no telling how many times I heard the 18 songs on that album. Growing up, my family would drive to horse shows and cow works across the Rocky Mountain West, and unless we could talk my mom into reading Hank the Cowdog for the umpteenth time, my dad usually had Ian Tyson or Jerry Jeff Walker in the tape deck.

A little later on, I was thumbing through another one of my dad’s friend’s record collections and saw Ian & Sylvia’s Four Strong Winds record. I couldn’t believe it was Ian Tyson. Where was his hat? And his horse? They told me Tyson was a folk singer before he was a cowboy.

Turns out, that wasn’t exactly true. He was a wannabe cowboy before he was a folk singer before he became a real cowboy before becoming a cowboy musician.

His father, an English immigrant, had an infatuation with cowboys and the West, and he came across Canada looking for it. He was frozen out in the harsh winter of 1906–07, and he ended up settling outside of Vancouver. The fascination never left, though, and he always kept horses—and made Will James books his favorite gift for his young son. Ian taught himself to ride in a crude way on those horses, and he inherited his father’s weakness for horseflesh.

He worked a summer as a packer in the Canadian Rockies, but Tyson wandered somewhat aimlessly after he left home. He went to art school and worked in logging camps and restaurants, all the time riding bareback horses at the amateur and local rodeos. In 1956, at 22 years old, one bucked him off and as he hit, the horse stepped on his ankle. It was shattered. That was the first time a horse would alter the course of his life, but it wouldn’t be the last. Lying in the hospital bed, he heard Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” That was his first experience with Cash—but again, not his last. He borrowed a guitar from the patient next to him and spent his convalescence teaching himself to play.

He found his voice and his future wife, Sylvia Fricker, in Toronto. They formed a duo and moved to New York, running in the same circles as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Dave Van Ronk, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. In the 1960s, they hit it big with songs like “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon.” They appeared on the Johnny Cash Show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, another time he and Cash’s lives intertwined—but not the last. The British Invasion was coming, however, and it doomed their folk music career. Not willing to make their music political as most folk singers did, their popularity faded. They formed a band called Great Speckled Bird, and later, Tyson put out a couple of solo albums, but none of it truly caught a gear. As their careers unraveled, so did his marriage to Sylvia. Despite hosting a show in Canada called the Ian Tyson Show until 1975, his heart wasn’t in it. Once again, Tyson was adrift.

And once again, horses entered his life. He had purchased a small farm outside of Bowmanville, Ontario, and he retreated there. Stumbling into the cutting horse game, before long he bought a daughter of Doc Bar—the father of the modern cutting horse. He crossed the mare with Mr San Peppy and soon became a carrier of the cutting disease.

But showing horses just didn’t feel right in eastern Canada. So he drifted west and holed up in a bunkhouse on a Pincher Creek, Alberta, ranch managed by his friend Alan Young. At 44, he was living the life of a 20-something cowboy.

He had the means to raise and train cutters and enjoyed significant success with them in the United States and Canada. Despite divorcing himself from the mainstream music scene, he played a local bar in Calgary called Ranchman’s. Out of the blue, Tyson learned of Neil Young’s cover of “Four Strong Winds” and within a year, the royalty check came in. Johnny Cash also recorded one of Tyson’s songs, “Red Velvet,” but it never made it. Tyson was indifferent. Cowboying and keeping some money flowing with his Ranchman’s gig was enough.

Steadily, the horses drove Tyson’s passion for the West toward a deeper understanding of it. This was the second time horses influenced the course of his career—but not the last. He met people who helped him discover even more. From authentic cowboys inviting him on romps through real ranch country to well-read Westerners pointing him toward a story, he established his cowboy credibility quietly in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Taking the Neil Young royalties, he bought a ranch in Alberta outside of Longview. Soon, traditional cowboy songs began working their way into his set list—as well as originals based on his favorite Western characters. Among the first was a tribute to Will James, the early influence of his cowboy dreams.

While playing at Ranchman’s, he met his second wife, Twylla, who was 17. She encouraged him to record his cowboy music and he set off to make a name for himself in the West.

“The West has always been the land of reinvention,” he says. “Things aren’t working out back in Philadelphia so they leave home and try to become a cowboy. It’s been like that for 150 years. A clean start, a clean slate. You can start all over again…if you can stand the winters.”

The rest, so to speak, is history. After releasing Old Corrals and Sagebrush in 1983, he was invited to play the first-ever National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., organized by Hal Cannon and Waddie Mitchell. For whatever reason, cowboy culture was ripe for renaissance and Tyson had a satchel full of Western songs, the music chops, and the industry connections to ride the wave. Cowboyography, I Outgrew the Wagon, And Stood There Amazed, and Eighteen Inches of Rain became cowboy standards.

Yet there’s something intangible— at least for me—that sets Tyson’s music apart in the cowboy music genre. It seems that regardless of whether they’re a South Texas puncher or a Nevada buckaroo, most cowboys have a few Ian Tyson albums rattling around their truck. And while they may argue over dallying versus tying on, or flat brim hats versus the high sides, it seems cowboys from every region can agree on Tyson.

“There’s a couple of reasons, I think,” he says. “Canadian cowboys are an eclectic mix. The Nevada guys get a little narrow minded about it and the Texan guys do, too. But those songs were written all over the place: Canada, Texas, California, and a lot in New Mexico. I learned all my riding in the Texas style, following guys like Buster Welch and Shorty Freeman around. I like the fact that it’s still regional. It’d be awful if everybody was the same, I don’t think that’d be very help- ful. In Charlie Russell’s paintings of north of the Missouri from the late 1890s, there’s all those guys: grass rope guys, reata guys, slick forks, and the whole nine yards. He loved that. And I like it, too.”

In his song, “The Gift,” Tyson sings that Russell was given a gift by God to paint the West he saw before it was settled up. I think Tyson, like Russell, has been given a gift by God to sing the West he’s seen before it’s next change.

That’s a significant reason why he’s so universally popular among cowboys. There’s romance in the fading West. He also sings about the heroes of the West. From Russell to Ross Knox and vaqueros to Texas cutters, there’s something any lover and active participant of the West can identify with. Plus, no two songs sound the same. This one might have a rock flavor, that one reggae, the next, jazz, and then he might just cover “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” For me, though, the attractiveness of Tyson’s music lies in his ability to make the cowboy life seem imperative to a meta-narrative of life. He refracts the overall human experience through the lens of the cowboy, giving us more than riding broncs and roping wild steers.

“Cowboy music gets pedantic,” Tyson says. “Theyget hung up on jerking the latigo and that kind of stuff. The great songs that have been written aren’t necessarily that way. ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ is probably in the top five cowboy songs of all time. It’s a mythic song, like a Greek tragedy. It’s got this huge Shakespearean scope. ‘Cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride’ that’s what we’ve got to strive for.

“My personal music hero is Mark Knofler. More and more his work is based on Celtic influences, just like the old cowboy songs are. I have to go back to the Scots-Irish tradition, I really do. ‘Streets of Laredo’ is based on an Irish song from the 17th century—they all came across the ocean. I’ve always wanted to do new music and some of the people don’t make those transitions—and don’t want to. Some people stick with you through them.”

While Tyson’s first 75 years are certainly fascinating, it’s the past five that have really piqued my interest. Of course, the transformation of his voice was the biggest news.

In the summer of 2006, a year after he and Twylla’s marriage ended, he was playing the Havelock

Country Jamboree in Ontario and tried to out-sing a bad sound system. A couple months later, he caught a virus while traveling and developed polyps in his throat. His voice dramatically changed from the clean, smooth sound to a gravelly whisper.

About that time, a rising star on the Canadian country scene named Corb Lund befriended Tyson. Losing his family (he and Twylla have a daughter named Adelita) and his voice within a year of each other left him devastated.

Tyson was adrift again. Of course, a man drifting in his 70s looks very different than one in his

20s—or even his 40s. He still had the ranch and the horses. In fact, he was sitting horseback when he heard “Four Strong Winds” named the best Canadian song of all time.

Johnny Cash had died a couple years prior to that, but before his death, in 2003, he cut a version of “Four Strong Winds.” American Recordings included it on a posthumous album, American V, in 2006. Once again, as Tyson hit a low spot, the song saw him through. He calls that version of the song his favorite. It would be the last connection between he and Cash.

“I really like John and John liked Sylvia and I,” Tyson says. “When I went back to cowboying in the late 1970s, I didn’t see much of John. He was in Nashville and he had big ups and downs in his career, too. John really loved a song of mine called ‘Red Velvet.’ He said, ‘It’s going to be a hit.’ I don’t know the producer’s name, but they cut it and it was a disaster. I never talked about it with him, and I think he wanted to just forget it. I think John cut ‘Four Strong Winds’—of course he liked the song a lot—but he knew he was coming to the end and I think he wanted to make things right.”

Honored and flattered though he was by the many tributes surfacing for his life’s work, his voice was still gone. A sailor needs an ocean, a mama her baby to hold, and a singer needs his voice. At the urging of Lund, he kept recording. Tyson called the sound his “Raven Voice,” and he put out Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories and Raven Singer with it.

After nearly six years with the Raven Voice, doctors decided they could operate, remove the polyps, and with therapy, he could regain his old voice. It worked. When I sat with him last summer, his voice was recovering. At the concert later that evening, he sounded like he did on the albums I grew up with.

But horses still tugged at his sleeve, beckoning him. The summer of 2012, at 78, after the surgery and with the voice beginning to recover, he was working with a colt.

“I got in an argument with a young horse that I raised—a fouryear- old—and I lost, big time,” he says. “He really socked it to me. He slammed me down on the horn and I kept trying to get loose of him and he finally ripped my shirt off. I thought, ‘I’m going to have to choose.’ The singing was going so well, the voice came back so well that I thought, ‘I’m going to hang it up.’ That bronc, he did me a favor. He made me take a position. For years, I tried to do both all the time. I really believe that you can’t. If you want to be really good—I’m not talking about Mickey Mouse stuff—you have to choose. There aren’t enough hours in the day and when you get to a certain age you have to face up.”

For the third time, a horse played a crucial role in Tyson focusing on music. As an aside to this story, after our interview, we drove to some old corrals to take a few photos. The ranch owner, on a three-year-old colt, rode up to visit. While discussing the bloodlines of his young horse, he offered Tyson a ride. Tyson demurred, but the cowboy insisted. His manhood challenged, he—with minor difficulty—swung aboard. Even at 80, Tyson is still irascible.

His final chapter is happening now, and he knows it. But he also knows what he’s capable of. While he’s not going to be starting colts, he’s still got plenty to give.

“I can still do a high energy show with these guys,” he says of his bandmates Gord Maxwell and Lee Worden. “For how long, I don’t know. A couple more years, I guess. They’re great players and really good singers. I want to finish out my run with a group like that. Work is tight right now, and it’s expensive. But we are surviving as a group. I’m starting to get a little more recognition all the time.”

Touring some with Corb Lund is also bringing his music to another generation of lovers of the West, and Lund is heir apparent to the Canadian cowboy singer crown.

Professionally, he’s motivated, but perhaps not as driven as he was as a young man. When Ian & Sylvia was at it’s zenith, he and Sylvia were raising their son, Clay. When the cowboy music took off, Adelita was in grade school.

With a third act seemingly on the horizon, the thought of family— and the promise of youth— entered his mind.

“I’d like to be a grandpa,” he says. “I haven’t become one yet. I’d like to see my daughter…”

He trails off, distracted by two riders putting some miles on a couple of colts outside the window.

I don’t know for sure, but in that moment I think I saw how Tyson combines his passion for the cowboy life, longings for family, stubborn professionalism, and God-given creativity into a song. It’s sad, it’s majestic, it’s beautiful, it’s tough and it’s tender. It’s the West in a man.