SEE Magazine: Edmonton's Weekly Source For News, Arts and Entertainment
SEE Magazine
Issue #425: January 24, 2002

by Tom Murray

The Gift: A Tribute to the Music of Ian Tyson
Friday, Jan. 25 at Festival Place
Saturday, Jan. 26 at the Arden Theatre

"I don’t think there’s any body else around, outside of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who have such a timeless 40 years’ worth of material. And he’s from our own backyard. Quite frankly, he’s one of my heroes – he’s one of the reasons I do what I do," explains writer/promoter Peter North. It’s with that assessment in mind that North has gathered an assembly of Alberta’s best musicians in order to do proper homage to his idol this weekend, Friday at Festival Place in Sherwood Park, and Saturday at the Arden Theatre in St. Albert.

If any Alberta artist deserves a tribute, it’s Tyson. He’s more than a musical legend; the songwriter has left an indelible stamp on his adopted province, and practically drawn up a blueprint for younger performers on how to sustain a career.

Born in British Columbia in 1934, Tyson actually lived the life he later sang about. It was only after a rodeo accident in his home province left Tyson with a busted ankle that he used the intervening recovery time to teach himself basic guitar chords. Caught up in the excitement of the folk music revival of the time, he hitchhiked to Toronto, where he met singer Sylvia Fricker. Married in 1964, Ian and Sylvia provided some of the most memorable and lasting songs from that period; gems like Four Strong Winds and Someday Soon were snapped up by other musicians and stood as testament to the duo’s creative powers. Moving with the times, the couple formed the Great Speckled Bird which, along with the Byrds and Bob Dylan, anticipated the country-rock fusion of the late ’60s/early ’70s.

Unfortunately, while critically lauded, Great Speckled Bird never achieved the same commercial success as the couple did alone. But their influence was deeply felt; Doug Andrew, guitarist/vocalist for Circus in Flames, can attest to that. His contribution to the tribute will be Someday Soon, which Judy Collins turned into a hit in 1969, and one Great Speckled Bird tune, A Long, Long Time To Get Old.

"My sister used to listen to Ian and Sylvia songs like National Hotel and Four Strong Winds, so I heard them when I was quite young," says Andrew. "She actually was a really big fan of Ian and Sylvia so she was pretty excited when she heard that I was coming up to do this. She said ‘oh, maybe I could just slip into your suitcase, and go up there with you.’ Her husband and I kinda said ‘why, what are you talking about?’ And she said ‘Ian Tyson is the sexiest man in Canada!’"

After the experimental Great Speckled Bird (who left one Todd Rundgren-produced album for posterity), Ian and Sylvia took over a Canadian television music show, Nashville North. When Sylvia left, Tyson kept on, and the renamed Ian Tyson Show ran for five years, from 1970 to 1975. Worn out from the rigours of the road and the state of the music industry, Tyson decided to return to his first love, training horses, acquiring a ranch in southern Alberta. The sabbatical yielded particularly fine results a few years later: 1983’s Old Corrals and Sagebrush, an album of new and traditional cowboy songs that, coupled with his appearance at the inaugural Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering, pointed Tyson in a new direction. But it was 1987’s Cowboyography, an undisputed high point in the Ian Tyson canon, that alerted the public to Tyson’s revitalized career.

Guitarist/vocalist Shuyler Jansen, still a teenager when Tyson was embarking on this creative renaissance, is unabashed in his appreciation for the album’s romantic imagery and vivid songwriting. As one fifth of Old Reliable, Jansen reconfigures roots music in a way that may at first seem incompatible with Tyson. But the guitarist, who will be performing Alberta’s Child and Sam Bonneyfield’s Saloon, an older tune he’ll be playing with the McDades, feels a kinship with Tyson that goes beyond music.

"He’s a poet and an outlaw," states Jansen, "a real cowboy. He keeps the spirit of Alberta alive."

Peter North agrees. "I think Terry McDade said it best the other day when he said he wasn’t directly musically influenced by the guy, but it’s impossible to avoid his influence, just in terms of getting out there and doing it, raising the bar, setting the standard."

Stewart McDougall would certainly concur; Tyson also served as a musical beacon for the keyboardist. "I saw and heard the original Great Speckled Bird in my hometown of Fredericton, when they came to play the winter carnival at the University one year, if memory serves me. I was in high school, and a few of us went out to see him play. Somehow we knew that Ian and Sylvia had gone beyond the folky thing and were doing this new trip. It was the first time I’d ever heard the pedal steel used in a rock context."

McDougall, who has since carved a formidable niche of his own as part of the Great Western Orchestra, remembers with fondness his tour of duty supporting the albums Cowboyography and I Outgrew the Wagon on the road. He’s played most of these songs, and this weekend will see his take on La Primera, Old Cheyenne and You’re Not Alone Anymore. As a fan and former sideman, MacDougall best appreciates the endurance of Tyson’s back catalogue while marveling at the 68-year-old’s continuing vitality.

"He’s created such a wealth of good material in the course of getting to where he is, and we can’t let all that go to waste. So while he’s fearlessly plowing ahead to where no one has gone before, we should still be able to follow along in his wake without messing him up too much."

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