Ian Tyson – The Legend
Ian Tyson is one of the great cowboy singers and
songwriters in Canada and the United States.
He is one of a kind — authentic and durable.
He writes and sings about a group of people few others write
or sing about. Many of his songs are about cattle, horses and authentic
cowboys and buckaroos.
Ian has had two distinctly brilliant carriers,
spanning three decades. His first started with his part in the
legendary folk duo of Ian & Silvia in the 1960s.
Since the early 1990s, he has enjoyed great success at
western song writing and singing.
We caught up with Ian after one of his concerts at
the famed Hamley’s Slick Fork Saloon in Pendleton Oregon, during the
2008 Pendleton PRCA Rodeo Roundup.
Ian said, “I always wanted to be a cowboy, not a
song writer or a singer, a cowboy. I just got lucky in the music
business.” We asked how long Ian has been singing real cowboy songs
and he explained, “When I was a kid growing up in British Columbia,
Canada, we used to listen to Wilf Carter, sometimes called ‘Montana
Slim,’ on the radio.
Wilf was a big deal in Canadian western music in those days. At that
time, I did not know how to play a guitar nor did I understand that
those songs we listened to were western folk songs.
When I was 19 years old, I caught the “rodeo fever” and tried
my hand at riding bareback horses.
I acquired an old “Dixon” bareback rigging and cracked out in
the Canadian rodeo circuit.
Going down the rodeo road several months later, a bareback
horse threw me off and stepped on my ankle, shattering the
anklebone. I spent some
time in the hospital recovering from the accident.
While in the hospital, I borrowed a guitar from a kid who was
in the room a couple of beds away from me and I started trying to
learn to play.”
Ian believes real cowboys and buckaroos are
interesting to write songs about because they are members of a
different mysterious culture.
They are furiously independent and live a different life
style. They live in a closed horseback society.
This has always fascinated him.
Around 1981, Ian met photographer and writer Kurt
Markus and they became friends.
Ian had cowboyed some in Canada but where Kurt took him, in
the Great Basin, into Oregon and Nevada ranches, cowboying was a
whole different deal.
This country was huge with few people and the buckaroos camped with
their horses and cattle, out on the range. They ate at a chuck wagon
and slept in tepee tents.
They packed pistols and trotted out each morning 15 to 20
miles to work cattle.
This experience just blew him away.
When Ian was invited to the Elko Poetry Gathering,
which started in 1984, he met some of the first authentic cowboys
there that were singing and reciting cowboy poetry.
It was a natural progression.
Ian thought, “I can write that way.” and he put out his album
“Cowboyography,” his first seamless view of modern contemporary
cowboy life. This album
went gold in Canada and is closing in on platinum. This is an astonishing feat for an album that is really only
understood by perhaps no more than 1,000 “real” working cowboys
throughout Canada and the United States.
This points out how important the cowboy image is to us and
how many people wish to identify with the cowboy even if, as Ian
says, “they do not know which end of the cow gets up first.”
Ian explained why real cowboys and buckaroos
related to his music. He says, “They respected where I’d been and knew, I’d ‘been
there.’ These working
cowboys and buckaroos can spot a ‘wanna be’ a long way off. I
understood their way of life.
I had fed cattle in a blizzard and doctored sick calves in
the spring on the feed ground.”
He wanted to be the voice for the working cowboy because they
couldn’t relate to the Nashville “urban cowboys.”
Soon his music had a huge cult following in the ranching
Perhaps William Matthews, noted Western Artist, summed up best what
Ian means to the ranching community and cowboys and buckaroos in
Canada and the United States. Matthews said at the 2008 Elko Poetry
all of us in this room, who have come from all over the country,
have in common is that we all have Ian Tyson CDs in our pickups,
feed trucks, and horse trailers.
His songs are part of our daily life.”
“The reason that I write western music is that I live in the
country. There is very
little difference between working cowboys in Arizona or Canada. The
international border does not matter.
Sure there is different horse gear used in different parts of
the country but they are all cowboys at heart.
This whole cowboy deal is all about the horse. Horses came to
the new world from Spain 600 years ago, and cowboys have been riding
them ever since. Without the horse, cowboying would be just tractor
Ian’s music succeeded because it also was
sophisticated. He had
to be able to play to a non-western audience in Canada and the
United States, and entertain them as well, even though they didn’t
know what he was singing about.
They could feel the spiritual connection with the earth and
sky and the horse you’re riding.
The music holds an appealing melancholy sadness that reflects
the aspect of the cowboy culture that is slowly fading in our modern
Ian still does a number of concerts throughout
Canada and the United States.
When asked how long he planned to keep doing concerts, he
replied, “I tour because I can.
A lot of musicians would like to tour, but they can’t fill
those concert seats. If
the people stop coming to my concerts I’ll hang it up.”
Ian has recently cut a new album that was available by fall 2008.
Ian says, “The title of my new album will be ‘Yellowhead to
Yellowstone and Other Love Stories.’
Watch for it. Beyond that, I don’t have a clue. We will just see what tomorrow brings.”
The traveling “bedroll cowboy” may be slowly
disappearing from the western landscape but Ian’s songs will live
information and appearance-dates, visit Ian Tyson’s official Web
For information on the Elko Poetry Gathering contact:
The Western Folklife Center
Mike Laughlin, Photos by Lee Raine