Ian Tyson: legendary singer a hard man to track down

Ian Tyson won’t carry a cellphone or answer emails. That’s why it’s been impossible, according to his longtime publicist Richard Flohil, to set up an interview with the legendary singer, who performs with a newly recovered, smoother voice at Red Deer’s Memorial Centre on Sunday night.

Ian Tyson won’t carry a cellphone or answer emails.

That’s why it’s been impossible, according to his longtime publicist Richard Flohil, to set up an interview with the legendary singer, who performs with a newly recovered, smoother voice at Red Deer’s Memorial Centre on Sunday night.

Of course, the now nearly 81-year-old Tyson is known for his solitary nature, which requires sometimes disappearing into an austere, stone homestead on his property to do some songwriting, if the mood strikes.

He’s also famous for his prickly and disinterested attitude towards the press.

This was acknowledged by none other than Flohil, who wrote an explanatory article about his sometimes client back in 2010: “Tyson is often his own worst enemy. … He’s moody, irascible, doesn’t suffer fools for a second … he rarely misses an opportunity to grumble at the CBC, complains commercial radio won’t touch his records with a barge-pole and hangs up on interviewers who haven’t done their research, or want to know about the Ian & Sylvia Days.”

But Tyson also has a less spiky, generous side that Flohil noted — and which was revealed firsthand to a small but appreciative Red Deer audience in 2009.

That’s when the big-wheel from Longview performed as part of a small songwriters circle at the former The Matchbox theatre, along with two largely unknown singers — Donna Durand, formerly of Red Deer, and Brett Nelson of Redcliff.

Durand had only brushed shoulders with Tyson on a moving music festival on a train, and was delighted — and surprised — when he accepted her invitation to join the modest circle.

A white-hatted Tyson is remembered as genially jamming on the other performers’ songs during the intimate show. He praised both of the up-and-coming songwriters, and even imparted mentoring advice, such as: “Got to be careful, you don’t want to let your guitar tell you what the melody will be,” before bidding the crowd a brisk adios.

Tyson’s blunt, but affable, side was also evident during an interview with the Advocate back in 2007.

He had been lamenting the cowboy way of life, which was getting lost in the last economic boom in the province. Most cowboys were going into the oilpatch and trading in their old trucks for Cadillac pickups, he observed. “It’s ridiculous.”

For half a century, Tyson had been painting a more romantic, less mercenary, picture of Alberta in songs such as Springtime in Alberta and Alberta’s Child.

In these tunes, love proves as inconstant as the cruel spring weather in this province, and Canadian cowboys are as fond of hockey and honky-tonks as of Wilf Carter and saddle broncs.

Through his plaintive and poetic lyrics, the singer has perhaps done more than anyone to mythologize the Western way of life. But listeners who follow his songs closely can often glean, beneath their sense of hope and longing, sharp and bitter grains of truth. For instance, This is My Sky from his 2005 album Songs From the Gravel Road is a defiant rant at life and love.

While the song is ostensively about the red-tailed hawks that routinely sit on a fence-post on his ranch “and scream at me when I go by,” the tune also contains the line “Does anyone mate for life?” indicating the twice-divorced singer’s deep disappointment in romance.

If the lows in Tyson’s life have to do with broken relationships, then the highs certainly surround his storied singing career.

It dates back to the early 1960s when the B.C. native and his former wife-to-be, Sylvia Fricker, were quickly becoming Canada’s first pop stars. By 1969 they had formed the group The Great Speckled Bird and were touring the world with such hits as Four Strong Winds, You Were on My Mind and Someday Soon.

Ian & Sylvia were managed at the time by the same U.S. mogul who steered the careers of Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and later Janis Joplin and The Band. The duo were a big, North American deal, playing Carnegie Hall, the Newport Folk Music Festival and Ontario’s Mariposa.

But by the mid-1970s, the couple had divorced, Tyson was helming his own CTV music show and his career was floundering.

He took a break to devote himself to ranching, and didn’t start performing again until the 1983 album Old Corrals and Sagebrush.

Despite some aches and health problems stemming from his rodeo days, Tyson has been going strong ever since, recording 14 more acclaimed albums and, in the process, becoming a Member of the Order of Canada, and honouree at the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

In 2005, his Four Strong Winds was chosen by CBC Radio One listeners as the greatest Canadian song of all time. It was reprised when Ian and Sylvia sang together at the 50th anniversary of the Mariposa Folk Festival in 2010, in Orillia, Ont. And Tyson’s recording of the tune was even played last year during former Alberta premier Ralph Klein’s funeral.

All the Good ’Uns, Vol. 2 is the singer’s second best-of collection from 2013. It notably features his newly-recovered voice, which will be heard live when he performs on Sunday in Red Deer.

Tyson, who’d injured his throat by singing too loudly at a country music festival with a bad sound system, opted for polyp surgery in 2012, followed by vocal therapy. It was successful and his voice is now described as “golden as ever.”

But whether smooth or gravelly, it’s not Tyson’s voice but his tunes — covered over the years by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Brandt, Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris and others — that speak loudest to listeners.

As Flohil concluded, the singer’s songs “really tell Tyson’s story” — and a very human, relatable story it is.

The few tickets still available for the 7:30 p.m. concert, presented by the Central Music Festival Society, are $55.45 from the Black Knight Ticket Centre.

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