The Cowboy in Country Music: Ian Tyson

Ian Tyson
Ian Tyson

When he was in his 40s Ian Tyson fell in love with the English language. He read a lot and wrote a lot, and out of that has come his western songs. Those songs happened at the right time, because it was during that period the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering began. This event, started in 1985 by folklorist Hal Cannon and cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, was a seminal event in the resurgence of “cowboy culture” in the United States and revived a genre that had been forgotten: western music.


The early years were years of stumbling for Tyson. He stumbled into being a musician, and he stumbled to his success in folk music. Then he stumbled out of the folk era and out of his marriage to his singing partner, Sylvia. And then he stumbled into the West. But, as Tyson notes, “When you stumble into something, you have to do something about it.” Tyson did that, developing a strong career on the folk circuit for about ten years before hosting a popular TV show in Toronto, then moving to Alberta where he found a home in western music.

Ian Tyson’s father, George Dawson Tyson, grew up in Liverpool, England, and left in 1906 for Canada. The British Tysons (Ian’s grandfather) were well off and George Tyson always expected to inherit a good deal of money.


Arriving in Canada, George Tyson worked as a ranch hand near Calgary, served in World War I, then sold insurance. He married Margaret Campbell and the family lived on Vancouver Island, where Ian Dawson Tyson was born on September 25, 1933. Margaret’s inheritance assured a private education for young Ian, who grew up loving cowboys through reading books by Will James. This led to his entering some rodeos, but the cowboy life was just one influence of many on young Ian.

After high school, Tyson went to the Vancouver School of Art and studied impressionism as well as commercial art. He had not been terribly influenced by music until he found himself in a hospital in Calgary with a broken ankle after being tossed from a bronc in a rodeo. The year was 1956 and Elvis was exploding. Sun Records, the label that launched Elvis, had released “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash. This was the first song Tyson, then in his 20s, tried to play as he learned the guitar. That guitar came from a patient in the bed next to Tyson. “It took a long time to learn how to play,” said Tyson. “I’m not a natural musician, but I’m sure glad I stuck with it.”

Tyson was in his third year at art school when he learned to play the guitar; he soon got with a rockabilly band, The Sensational Stripes, and started playing dances. “Rockabilly was something that I loved and I could play,” said Tyson. “It only had three chords.” Another appealing aspect was that Elvis had demonstrated that a guy with a guitar could get girls.

Tyson fell in love with a beautiful young lady of Greek descent and followed her to Los Angeles. The stay was brief—she soon sent him packing—but that experience was later immortalized in his song “Four Strong Winds.”


In 1958, Ian Tyson graduated from the Vancouver School of Art and, having read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, decided to hit the road himself. Hitchhiking south, he was picked up near Seattle and driven to Chicago. From Chicago, Tyson went to Toronto, where he landed a job with an advertising agency and bought a guitar. The folk craze hit America in 1958 when the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” reached number one on the pop charts. Soon, almost everyone was playing a guitar and singing folk songs, and Tyson joined the crowd. He formed a duet with Don Francks and quickly established himself on the Toronto folk music scene.

In his biography, I Never Sold My Saddle, Tyson remembers he “became an instant folk musician. I’d sing those songs in the coffeehouses…. Soon I was working every night in a different coffeehouse, so I gave up my day job.” Tyson also says that, at that time, “I had no plans or ambitions about anything. I had no focus, no goals. No high expectations. I just tried to be good at what I did.”

In 1959 he met Sylvia Fricker while he was still working with the ad agency. She sang to him over the phone, wanting help to break into the folk circles in Toronto, and they met soon afterwards. Sylvia, from Chatham, Ontario, about 30 miles east of Detroit, was seven years younger than Tyson and came from a musical family.

Ian and Sylvia began performing together in 1959 after she had moved to Toronto in the fall of that year. They put together an impressive repertoire of blues, spirituals, English and Scottish ballads and American folk songs and practiced their act. In the summer of 1961 they performed at the first Mariposa Folk Festival and acquired a manager, Edgar Cowan, who was involved with Mariposa.


Ian & Sylvia had gone as far as they could go in Toronto, so they set their sights on New York, the mecca for folk singers. Cowan sent letters to a number of agents and set up a few appointments in New York. Joe Taylor, a newspaperman, drove them down and they went to Gerde’s Folk City, where they performed. This caught the ear of legendary manager Albert Grossman, who managed Odetta at the time and was putting together the group that became Peter, Paul and Mary. Grossman signed them to a management contract, got them a record contract with Vanguard, and booked them into the Gate O’Horn in Chicago for six weeks. They played the college circuit and performed on the TV show Hootenanny.

In 1961 they had a real breakthrough when they performed on the main stage at the Newport Folk Festival and their performance was reviewed by Robert Shelton in the New York Times. Soon afterward, they played a concert at town hall in New York and that show was also reviewed by the New York Times.

Ian & Sylvia recorded their first two albums, Northern Journey and Early Morning Rain. At this point, Ian Tyson had all but forgotten about his love for the West and cowboys. He

was a successful folk singer, making good money and performing in concert. Ian & Sylvia sold out Carnegie Hall twice.


Inspired by Bob Dylan, who had begun writing songs, Ian tried his hand at writing. His first attempt produced the classic “Four Strong Winds,” which Ian and Sylvia recorded on their second album. The song came easily to Ian on a rainy fall day as he sat in Albert Grossman’s New York apartment. It was an autobiographical song, written about that Greek girlfriend from his art school days, although Tyson later admitted he “didn’t know what the four strong winds were.” A later song, “Someday Soon,” which was a originally a big hit for Judy Collins, “was completely made up. I don’t know where it came from, but I made it up,” said Tyson. At this point, Ian & Sylvia were a professional couple. In 1963, they got “personal,” and then they got married on June 26, 1964. The following year their son, Clay Dawson Tyson, was born and the couple bought a house in the upscale Rosedale area of Toronto. It was a marriage that was born from their professional relationship, but on the personal level Ian and Sylvia were already headed in different directions when not on the stage.

When Ian got his first big check for “Four Strong Winds” in 1963, he bought a cattle farm in Newtonville, Ontario, east of Toronto. Then, in 1969, when the big check came from Judy Collins’ version of his song “Someday Soon,” he bought the adjoining farm and stocked it with Hereford cattle and started breeding quarter horses. Sylvia was not interested in life on the farm; she was made for the city.

The best years for Ian & Sylvia were from mid–1962 until mid–1964, when they toured heavily and sold a good number of albums for Vanguard. But in 1964 the Beatles hit and began the era of the British Invasion. “The Beatles shut us down,” said Tyson in his autobiography, I Never Sold My Saddle. “It was over. OVER! We didn’t know how to play with electric instruments. We didn’t know how to use drums. We didn’t know how to EQ. Then California guys like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead came up and they had several months on us. They’d been playing badly with amps, but at least they’d been doing it. All us folkies were just standing there with egg on our faces. The only one who had the guts to challenge the rock ’n’ roll guys on their own terms was Dylan. He just jumped in.”

Ian & Sylvia were already out of step with the folk movement by this time. The early and mid–1960s were a time when folk music became heavily political, addressing issues like civil rights and the Vietnam War. But Ian Tyson was not political—he just wasn’t tuned into all that. There was pressure to write and perform political songs but Ian & Sylvia missed that boat and, as a result, they found themselves not quite fitting in with where the folk movement was headed. “We outlived our usefulness, I guess,” said Tyson of those days. Ian Tyson did not have to worry about the draft; he was classified 4-F because of his rodeo injury, a shattered ankle that had pins in it. “I just had no concept of what Vietnam was until I went to Japan and saw these servicemen, saw on their faces that they’d been through hell,” remembered Tyson.


Ian & Sylvia tried to join the folk- rock movement with a country rock band, The Great Speckled Bird, named after the Roy Acuff song that got him on the Grand Ole Opry in 1938. The folk music world had shunned country music during the 1960s because country music represented the conservative movement in America, while the folkies were liberals. Ian Tyson had grown up loving country music in Canada and did not have that prejudice. Roy Acuff ’s song “Wreck on the Highway” was a song he’d heard in his youth and always remembered. So the group went to Nashville and recorded Nashville, their last album for Vanguard.

Still, the duo had to contend with audiences who came to see and hear the Ian & Sylvia of old, not a reinvented country- rock group. Success had trapped them and they felt locked in, unable to change. “We should have changed our music,” said Tyson. “But we still had one foot in the Ian & Sylvia thing. We got what we deserved, I guess, which was nothing.”

One thing that saved them was their songwriting. Ian had written “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon” and those songs were recorded by numerous artists, giving him some income, although that eventually dried up. Sylvia had written “You Were On My Mind,” which was a number three pop hit for We Five in 1965.

In 1969 the Great Speckled Bird’s first album was released, produced by Todd Rundgren for Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Records. It was leased to the Ampex label, where it died. The group then parted company with Albert Grossman; their new manager was Bert Block, a former associate of Grossman who managed Kris Kristofferson. Grossman had put most of his energies behind Bob Dylan, whom he started managing as the singer began his career. Ian Tyson then became host of Nashville North in 1969. The following season it became The Ian Tyson Show, which was broadcast on CFTO, Toronto’s flagship station on the Canadian Television Network, CTV. Sylvia appeared on only half of the shows; this was Ian’s show and he performed Nashville- style country music. His rival was The Tommy Hunter Show, a popular program on the CBC network.


Tyson was, by his own admission, “pretty messed up during that time,” smoking a lot of marijuana and frustrated with the demands of stardom and the music industry. Whenever possible, he slipped away from Toronto and headed out to his 300-acre farm. Beginning with the TV show, Ian became a solo act and was doing quite well when suddenly, in 1975, he quit the show, recorded an album for A&M, Ol’ Eon, and headed out as a solo act. Things did not go well and by the fall of 1976 his life was falling apart, both personally and professionally. On the personal side, Ian was still married to Sylvia, but he was not happy and the two were headed in opposite directions. He wanted to sing with a country band and she wanted to stay home and be a mom.

Tyson wanted to move to Nashville but couldn’t because a 1971 marijuana bust in Toronto meant he could not obtain a green card. Still, in the fall of 1976, he came to Nashville where he had a manager, Melva Matthews, and where the Outlaw Movement, led by Waylon and Willie, was in full swing. Ian Tyson thought he fit in with the Outlaw Movement. “[B]ut I never could get anything going in Nashville,” he said. He discovered that he really didn’t fit in with the country music establishment in Nashville—and the Outlaw Movement was actually part of that establishment, albeit a renegade version of it. “I never got a shot because I never could schmooze,” remembered Tyson. “That’s held me back more than anything else over the years. I’ve got great friends, but I could never do the industry schmooze.”

Tyson went back to Toronto and formed a band, but his heart wasn’t in it. He wanted to move to Texas but the drug bust prevented it. “I’m sure glad that didn’t work out,” said Tyson. “Texas has changed a lot; it’s not cowboy anymore.” He was booked in Alberta for a couple of dates and, while there, took a look at the Rocky Mountains. He decided he’d rather starve beside the Rockies than live comfortably in Toronto.

Tyson sold his farm in Toronto, divorced Sylvia, and moved to Alberta, where he worked on a ranch in Pincher Creek where the foreman was an old buddy, Alan Young. Tyson lived in a cabin on that ranch for two years, writing only a couple of songs. “I just shut her down,” said Tyson. “I couldn’t care less about music. I just wasn’t interested. I was interested in riding wild horses and chasing wild cattle. I had the middle- aged crazies.”


Tyson still performed occasionally and in 1977 began singing with a band, Northwest Rebellion, that did a Canadian tour. The songwriting royalties were no longer coming in, so Tyson’s income came from being a cowboy and a weekend singer at a honky- tonk. Then, in 1979, Neil Young released “Four Strong Winds” on his album Comes a Time and the money from that song allowed Tyson to make a down payment on the T- Bar- Y Ranch. In October of that year he released his first album in four years, One Jump Ahead of the Devil, on Boot Records, an indie label out of Toronto.

The touring life did not suit Tyson, who settled into a regular gig at Ranchman’s, a club in Calgary that paid him well to perform about eight weeks a year. There Tyson sang country music songs made famous by George Strait, Bob Wills and Merle Haggard. At the Ranchman’s, Tyson met a teenage waitress, Twylla Biblow, who helped him at the ranch. Their daughter was born at the beginning of 1986; in July, the couple wed.

Shortly after the birth of his daughter, Ian Tyson went to Elko, Nevada, to perform at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. In 1983, Ian had released Old Corrals and Sagebrush, an album of western songs for Columbia Records. The album was recorded in his home and was inspired by an old friend who shod horses and encouraged Tyson to sing some old songs with just his guitar. That led to Ian’s writing songs and recording the album. That album led to his appearance at the first Elko gathering. “There’s no way to minimize the power of Elko to our sub-culture,” said Tyson. “Waddie Mitchell and Hal Cannon didn’t know it when they started it, but it was something that was waiting to happen. It created a small industry.”

It was through recording this album, and then his appearance at Elko, that Ian Tyson finally found his voice. “It’s like it was preordained,” he said. “It’s like I was selected by something, somebody to do this. I know how changeable and difficult the journey was. When I finally got here, it was like waking up and realizing that this was the work I was always meant to do. It’s scary, but it’s also wonderful. Cowboy music is much freer than the folk stuff. You’re not expected to do a certain song a certain way every night. There are no rules like that. It’s just ‘Tell me a story.’”


The performance at Elko was an epiphany for Ian Tyson. There, he connected with the audience, and the audience connected with him. The heart and soul of cowboy life was gathered at Elko for the Poetry Gathering and Tyson’s songs were a communal experience for those gathered there. This is the kind of experience that most performers only dream about. Prior to Elko, Tyson had no knowledge of or experience with western music. He wasn’t aware of Riders in the Sky, although he did know Don Edwards: “I used to go to Fort Worth with my cutting horses and heard Don at the White Elephant. We couldn’t believe that someone else was into this music; we were glad to find each other.”

Tyson’s next album, Ian Tyson, was also on Columbia but did not sell well and he left the label. Then he was back on TV, cohosting a show with Dick Caldwell in Edmonton, Sun Country. A new album was being born, but Tyson did not have the money, or label support, to record it. The songs were written in an isolated cabin and Tyson set out to record them. He contacted car dealer Einar Brasso and rancher Dan Lifkin, who bankrolled the album for $37,000. Adrian Chornowol, a classical pianist, produced it. “He was totally on top of everything. He was a genius. He had a complete vision. Arrangements. Everything. It’s like he was chosen—and whoever chose him turned it off for him,” said Tyson. (After producing the album, Chornowol had a sex change operation and changed his name to Toby Dancer.) Cowboyography was pressed up on Eastern Slope Records, Ian’s own label, with the Edmonton- based Stony Plain label handling Canadian distribution. A song on that album, “Navajo Rug,” a song Tyson cowrote with Tom Russell, was a hit on radio, gaining considerable airplay.

But it was the album that established Ian Tyson as a voice for the West. Some of the songs on the album were old ones. “Old Cheyenne” came from the You Were on My Mind album of 1972, and “Summer Wages” was on two Ian & Sylvia albums, So Much for Dreaming (1967) and Ian and Sylvia (1971). The album sold over 100,000 copies and led to Tyson receiving his first awards. “I’m singing subculture music for an audience that’s gotten much bigger than the subculture,” said Tyson. “I just wanted to be the voice of the cowboys, the working cowboys, because those guys can’t relate to the Nashville urban cowboys. I just wanted to speak for them. I didn’t know it was going to get out of hand.”

In 1988, Tyson released I Outgrew the Wagon, then five more albums followed: And Stood There Amazed (1991), Eighteen Inches of Rain (1994), All the Good’uns (1996), Lost Herd (1999) and Live at Longview (2002). Each of those albums solidified Tyson’s reputation as a voice of the West, from the West, for the West.


In November 2003, Ian Tyson went into a studio in Toronto and recorded Songs from the Gravel Road. The title came from a gravel road, about a mile long, that Tyson walked to get to his cabin, where he writes songs. He recorded with studio musicians who were not “country” or “western.” “They said, ‘we don’t know anything about this cowboy stuff,’” said Tyson. “I told them to not worry about the cowboy—I would supply that—I just wanted them to play big. And they caught on pretty quick.”

Most of the songs were brand new; Tyson worked on them during the summer at his home and recorded demos with his band. They’d never been performed live. “There was no opportunity,” said Tyson. “But I wasn’t going to worry about that. I wanted a sound and I got a sound.” Things ran smoothly in the studio. “After two days, I knew it was special. That’s why I went to Toronto. It’s so much easier to sing the songs with those professional studio musicians,” said Tyson. “We worked with a great producer, Danny Greenspoon, who had done part of the Lost Herd album. The only problem was that you’ve got to be careful about what key you pick to sing. Those guys can play anything so if you pick the wrong key, then off you go!”

“Silver Bell” had been written previously and was a song for his daughter, who is a barrel racer. “I wanted to surprise her with that song.” “One Morning in May” was a song he’d heard on Jim Rooney’s album and decided to record. Tyson was going through a difficult divorce at the time he was putting those songs together, and “Love Without End” and “So No More” both came out of that experience.

Tyson spoke of the last two songs on the album, “Moisture” and “Casey”: “I didn’t know what to do with [them],” said Tyson. “Neither did the producer.” The songs had been recorded live at East Longview Hall, and Tyson wanted them on the album but wasn’t sure how they would fit. Then, he said, “[a] one day I was driving in my truck and listening to a Dido album, which I love. At the end of the CD, I didn’t turn it off and put another one in. I just let it stay and after a minute or so there was another song or two. That’s the first I knew about ‘bonus tracks.’ So we decided to do that with ‘Moisture’ and ‘Casey.’”


Ian Tyson is unique among western singers because he wasn’t strongly influenced by the singing cowboys, those like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers although he saw their movies: “I distinctly remember seeing Tex Ritter and the Sons of the Pioneers perform when I was a kid.” Recently, Tyson sang “Cool Water” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” with a female backup group for the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, which inducted Bob Nolan.

“I’m a rancher,” said Tyson. “Music has given me an opportunity to have a ranch. I never thought about doing music at this point in my life when I was younger and, in fact, I tried to quit several times. But I always came back to it.” The audience keeps coming back to Ian Tyson, too. His tour of Canada and some western states in the U.S. was a series of sold- out shows. But it was the tickets that sold, not Ian Tyson—he’s not selling out, just pushing the envelope with his music, staying on the cutting edge with his songs from the foot of the Rockies.

SOURCES: Tyson, Ian. I Never Sold My Saddle. With Colin Escott. Vancouver, B.C.: Douglas, 1994. _____. Phone interview with the author, March 2, 2005.