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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Many rural seniors are having to travel a long way to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Stettler residents are being told to go to Red Deer, Drumheller or Camrose. (Black Press file photo).
Many rural central Alberta seniors have to travel far to get vaccines

Stettler residents are being directed to Red Deer, Drumheller or Camrose clinics

Hölmetrics CEO and co-founder Chad Verity said the Red Deer area could become a tech hub. (By SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
Red Deer-area tech company attracts international attention

Focusing on economic diversity in Red Deer region

The Red Deer Public Library downtown branch will likely not reopen as quickly as other branches because work needs to be completed on its HVAC system replacement. (File photo by ADVOCATE staff)
Preparation work begins on reopening Red Deer’s libraries

CEO hopes to know more about reopening dates later this week

(Photo from Highway 11 Functional Planning Study)
Public input wanted for Highway 11 improvement plan

Round 2 of public online engagement continues until March 10

Workers were busy getting a tall crane in place Thursday morning for the construction of the new courthouse in downtown Red Deer. The facility will include modern technology and replace the existing courthouse upon completion expected in spring 2023. Photo by Paul Cowley/Advocate staff
Red Deer building permits down slightly in February

The Real Canadian Superstore in Red Deer will be getting a facelift.… Continue reading

Red Deer dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped save a missing pet recently. The two dogs have more than 80,000 followers on Twitter. (Contributed photo)
WATCH: Red Deer science dogs help save lost pet

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped rescue a missing pet… Continue reading

A locally-produced video project aims to preserve Canada’s railway history

‘Railways have been an integral part of Canadian history since 1836’

Ryan Jake Applegarth of Ponoka, 28, is scheduled to appear at Ponoka Provincial Court on March 12, 2021. (File photo)
Discussions about justice continue as Ponoka murder victim’s case proceeds

Reaction to comments Ponoka Staff Sgt. Chris Smiley made to town council last month

Dr. Stanley Read
Hometown Bashaw doctor recognized with alumni award for AIDS work

Dr. Stanley Read, born and raised in Bashaw, is considered a global health leader

A nurse assistant prepares a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 during a priority vaccination program for health workers at a community medical center in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Andre Penner
COVID-19 cases start to climb again as variants spread, in step with dire forecasts

OTTAWA — Canada’s chief public health officer says new COVID-19 cases are… Continue reading

Shipping containers are seen at the Fairview Cove Container Terminal in Halifax on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Statistics Canada to release final economic figures for 2020, January GDP estimate

OTTAWA — Statistics Canada is expected to say today precisely how bad… Continue reading

FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo, former NBA player Shaquille O’ Neal is interviewed on the red carpet for Shaq’s Fun House in Miami. O’Neal is set to perform in his first competitive match when he teams in All Elite Wrestling with Jade Cargill in a mixed tag to take on Cody Rhodes and Red Velvet at Daily’s Place on an episode of “Dynamite,” Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
Shaq Attack: O’Neal ready to rumble in tag match for AEW

O’Neal’s first competitive match with All Elite Wrestling

Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee President Seiko Hashimoto, center, speaks during a Tokyo 2020 executive board meeting in Tokyo, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, Pool)
Tokyo Olympics add 12 women to executive board to reach 42 per cent

Board will now have 19 women among its 45 members

The Stratford Festival’s Festival Theatre is shown in Stratford, Ont., on May 28, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Robins
Stratford Festival plans next stages with two outdoor summer venues

Ontario festival productions set for between late June and the end of September

Most Read