Ian Tyson: Songs of the Rocky Mountain West

Yellowhead to Yellowstone is a song about change, loss, what to keep and what to let go, and handling all that, told in the voice of a wolf who is relocated from western Canada to Montana. It is the title track of Ian Tyson’s most recent album and opens the door to a group of songs about personal confrontations with change, and reflections of the changing landscapes and ways of life in the Rocky Mountain west.

That’s a landscape and a way of day to day living Tyson knows well. “Music and horses, they’ve been my two loves all my life,” he said.

For the last three decades, Ian Tyson has lived on the eastern slope of the Canadian Rockies, in Alberta. It’s ranch country, mountain and prairie, and although it is changing, still a place where those who live there both wrest their livings out of the land and know they have to work with land and weather to survive. “It’s just a mosaic of western values and emblems, ” Tyson said.

He should know. He has been a force in re inventing the image of the west and rewriting the history of cowboy music. It began when he was invited to come to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, in the early 1980s. “Back then, that was really the beginning of a whole renaissance of the cowboy movement, from silversmithing to saddle making, to poetry, to music,” he said.

“When I went down there, those people just said hey, there’s this Canadian guy, he’s a cowboy, he sings good and we’re gonna go hear him. They didn’t know anything about Four Strong Winds, they didn’t know anything about Ian and Sylvia, they just knew this guy’s a cowboy and he sings good. Which was fantastic. And I slowly came to the realization that I could change this music.”

Tyson was the man to do that. In addition to being a working cowboy and knowing and loving the way life goes in the mountain west, he had, through the folk revival of the 1960s and early 1970s, been half of the duo Ian & Sylvia, one of the top acts of the era. The combination of Ian’s strong tenor and Sylvia’s edgy alto gave them a distinctive sound. They each had a fine ear for song, as well, creating arrangements of traditional music such as Jesus Met the Woman at the Well and V’La L’Bon Vent which foreshadowed both country rock and Americana. They recorded songs by then little known musicians Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot. They each wrote songs, too: Ian’s Four Strong Winds and Sylvia’s You Were On My Mind are but two which remain enduring classics which have been recorded by artists around the world.

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When the couple came to a parting of the ways in the 1970s, Ian had returned to western Canada, and while keeping his hand in music by gigging around the region, focused on raising horses. Then came Elko.

“Here I was in my forties, “ he said, “and I realized that I could take the old Saturday afternoon Western movie music and leave that behind, and make a new music. Forge a new music out of my writing — and I did. It changed my life, basically, and gave me a whole new career.”

Tyson’s songs include character pieces about people who have shaped the west, clearly drawn descriptions of what it’s like to ride the range, to be out in the weather, to make a life in an often unforgiving land, stories of the beauty of that land, and stories of working out the joys and sorrows of love, framed in that life and those western landscapes. The album titles give an idea of the direction of the songs within them: Cowboyography, Eighteen Inches of Rain, Old Corrals and Sagebrush.

Yellowhead to Yellowstone is a bit darker than some of those. “You write about what you have,” Tyson said. Loss and change, connection and disconnection, regret and pondering what’s next make their way through ten songs, which end on a note of hope, in a song called Love Never Comes at All. “That’s a declaration of continuance, you know,” he said. “Love will continue.”

Now in his mid seventies, Tyson is pondering what’s next in his own path. “There are a lot of things I’d like to do before I tip over,” he said. “More songs, more cowboy stuff? It might be something else, a novel, a biography, maybe some short stories.” Later in the day of this conversation, he planned to go down to the small stone building on his ranch where he often works on his music. “I’ll play for a few hours,” he said, “just to keep the chops choppin.’”

Update: Tyson continues to record, and to celebrate the North American west through his music. Carnero Vaquero includes revisits to classics such as Darcy Farrow and newer music such as Shantell and Colorado Horses.

Further update: Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson are both being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in Calgary. Along with this, there’s the release on Stony Plain Records of the two disc collection Ian & Sylvia: The Lost Tapes.

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