In his youth, Ian Tyson lived the romantic cowboy life of a rodeo rider. Born on 25 September 1933 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Tyson grew into a rugged, outdoor type with ruffled hair and dark, Jack Kerouac good looks. He turned to folk singing and guitar picking in the 1950s, after recovering from rodeo-related injuries. As one half of the commercial and critically successful 60s folk duo Ian & Sylvia, he enjoyed hits with such original songs as Four Strong Winds and covers of such compositions as Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain but his heart always remained in the “cowboy culture”. As the lyric to Four Strong Winds relates: “Think I’ll go out to Alberta/Weather’s good there in the fall/Got some friends I can go/To working for...” and that’s what he did. Following the demise of the duo, Ian returned to work on a friend’s ranch, eventually buying his own spread in Southern Alberta.
Songs, however, just kept on coming and he began to record these celebrations of cowboy culture, a love of the land, and ranching. For the Canadian indie label Stony Plain he cut “One Jump Ahead Of The Devil” (1978), “Old Corrals & Sagebrush & Other Cowboy Culture Classics” (1983) and “Ian Tyson” (1984) before renewing his association with Vanguard Records, with whom he had made his early folk duo recordings. From ‘84 until the present, Tyson continued to record alternately for both Stony Plain and Vanguard, his latest release being “Song From The Gravel Road” (2005) for Vanguard.
COWBOYOGRAPHY (originally released 1986) and I OUTGREW THE WAGON (1989) are the first titles in an extensive Ian Tyson reissue programme currently underway through Ace/Vanguard.
Opening with the close harmonies of ‘Springtime’, the singers on “Cowboyography” are rapidly joined by a loping country band - all sighing steel guitar, spiky fiddles, rippling piano melodies and a deft, but solid, drum beat. The inspiration for Tyson’s lyrics may lie on the Canadian plains but they could as easily be sourced from the heart of Texas. Check out the honky-tonk heartbreak of Summer Wages and the Steve Fromholz-like songlines of Fifty Years On for a decidedly Texan atmosphere (particularly the piano break that forms the coda to the latter song).
Four Strong Winds is revisited in “I Outgrew The Wagon”, an album that shares mostly the same personnel and producer. The full-sounding instrumentation that supports the performance adds to the anthemic quality of its lyric. As sleevenote writer Richard Flohil observed in 1993, the song “remains partly a reprise of part of [Tyson’s] life, partly a tribute to the part of Canada that has become his home, and partly a song about change and loss” and these perceptions hold good for much of Tyson’s solo repertoire. The first verse of Irving Berlin (Is 100 Years Old Today) reinforces these senses of both location and of loss, closing with “At the mid part of the day/The driest spring in 91 years/The radio played on” before launching into a memorable chorus, “Irving Berlin is 100 years old today/The wind’s gone and blown my woman away”.
By John Crosby