Outside magazine, April 1995
A big damn hand came out of the sky and tapped Ian Tyson on the shoulder. That's the way he felt, anyway, sitting in a log cabin on his cattle ranch in Alberta, Canada, working on another song. It wouldn't be a "country" song, all about urban people savaged by urban life. It'd be about people working cattle on horseback. It would be about their lives. About Tyson's life.
"Country and western" is the category--coined by Billboard magazine in 1949--but almost no one's written songs in the western style since the forties, when Gene Autry was back in the saddle again. Western doesn't sell, the thinking goes, and Tyson's songs are the kind a man might write if he were deliberately trying to sabotage a singing career. They're about cowboys, for the most part, and my guess is that only a couple of thousand folks on earth--mostly North American working cowboys--might understand every nuance. Most people don't know what dally roping is, why vaqueros need tapaderos, or that Mona's is a brothel in Winnemucca, Nevada, a fact that imparts a certain level of meaning to an otherwise wistful love song. Ian Tyson is the best that "western" music has to offer, and his albums, like the classic Cowboyography, are not at all commercial. Except they keep selling, both in the United States and in Tyson's native Canada, where his records go gold. Tyson doesn't know why. It might have something to do with dreams: cowboy dreams, champagne dreams. Doesn't matter. Everyone has them, and maybe that's the allure.
Tyson was born in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1933, and grew up reading books about cowboys. His father, however, didn't think much of ranch work. Cowboys were the "dregs of society," a truly despised class. In those days, some bars in the interior of Canada wouldn't even serve men wearing cowboy hats. So, of course, young Ian Tyson--who would exhibit a prickly obstinacy throughout his life--began riding broncs in local rodeos. He kept at it until his sophomore year in college, when he went off a horse and blew his ankle apart.
In the hospital he started plinking around on a guitar. He learned to play and later earned a few bucks doing Buddy Holly numbers in rockabilly joints. The money wasn't bad, so Tyson, who still thought the cowboy life was "the perfect combination of riding high and living free," tried another career.
He moved to Toronto, where folk music was just starting to become a social phenomenon. There were more coffeehouses than there were folk-singers at the time, and Tyson became a local star.
Not that he knew anything about folk music. He just learned stuff off records. Somebody introduced him to Sylvia Fricker, who did, in fact, know folk music. Ian and Sylvia, as they were known, were hot by their second album. They wore black turtlenecks and were the hippest thing on campus when they played Yale and Vassar. There were rave reviews in the New York Times.
Ian and Sylvia played venues across North America, fell in love, were married, had a son. In 1969 they were offered a job hosting a live music show on Canadian television. The program was a hit, and the producers, who liked Ian's charisma, renamed it The Ian Tyson Show. Which was the beginning of the end of the marriage.
After five years, Tyson quit. He had once written a popular song, called "Four Strong Winds," about realizing a childhood fantasy: "Think I'll go out to Alberta / weather's good there in the fall." It occurred to him that if he didn't go out to Alberta right now, goddamn, and start living the cowboy life, it was all going to pass him by. So he bought a ranch south of Calgary. To finance work he needed done on the place, he played some music at a Calgary honky-tonk called the Ranchman's, where he had a reputation for using up women and stepping out into the audience to settle matters with hecklers.
When the 42-year-old Tyson started dating a teenage waitress at the Ranchman's, no one, Tyson says, gave them "a Chinaman's chance." But Twylla Dvorkin was in love with ranch life, and 20 years later, the marriage looks like a loving one. Dinner-table conversation at the Tyson ranch, the T-Bar-Y, involves cows, fences, cutting horses, rain, and snow. Without Twylla, Tyson says, "I'd probably be dead." There's a pause. "Well, maybe not dead." Another pause. "No, I'd be dead."
At age 61, Tyson is finally at peace with himself, running the T-Bar-Y on the high and windy slopes of Alberta. Weather's good there in the fall.
In 1983 Tyson put together an album he called Old Corrals and Sagebrush. Recorded in his house, it was meant to be something of a Christmas present for friends. Then someone at CBS heard it and offered Tyson a contract. Corrals didn't sell well, not then, but the reviews were good.
Then, in 1984, the first cowboy poetry gathering was held in Elko, Nevada. Tyson was invited to perform, and what amazed him was the number of people still living the life he'd read about as a kid. There were people who knew exactly what he was singing about in his private songs. People who knew tapaderos and dally roping. There seemed to be a cowboy renaissance in the works, and Tyson became its musical spokesman. Not that he ever wanted to be.
So far, Tyson has released six western albums. Every once in a while he imagines he doesn't have much more to say on the subject. Then a line comes to him. A melody. Some songs take a month or more to write. Sometimes they happen in a single morning. When they're right, they seem to come from a place completely outside him. It's like this big hand comes out of the sky and taps him on the shoulder. It's a pretty ethereal deal, this unseen hand, and Tyson figures it doesn't pay to analyze the hell out of it. Still, it could be that Charlie Russell felt that same hand on his shoulder over 70 years ago, when he chronicled the cowboy's life in his paintings. Tyson wrote a song about Russell. It's called "The Gift."