CD: Various Artists, The Gift: A Tribute to Ian Tyson
Release date: 2007
Label: Stony Plain Recording
Think I’ll go out to Alberta?weather’s good there in the fall
Got some friends that I could go to working for
Still I wish you’d change your mind, if I asked you one more time,
But we’ve been through this a hundred times or more.
?Four Strong Winds? by Ian Tyson
There’s cowboy mythology, and then there’s the Ian Tyson mythology. Tyson’s own history sounds like a Tyson song, a combination of story-telling, myth-making (truth-making, really), and prairie-wide, mountain-high stretches of time and space, beauty and melancholy.
Here’s what I remember (from years ago, so it may not be accurate): First of all there’s the famous musical and romantic partnership with Sylvia, who fought with Ian’s former inamoratas in the ladies rooms of bars they played and inspired one of Ian’s most fertile songwriting periods.
Among other big names in the early ?60s folk movement, the couple befriended Bob Dylan and were later amazed at his rocket launch to stardom.
Sylvia eventually felt like only half a person and left Ian to nurse a broken heart on his big lonely ranch.
On a television special years later Ian recounted his version of those dark years when he found a solo career thrust on him just as the folk movement was fading (blown out of the water by the arrival of the Beatles) and the country music industry was still way too conservative to accept him as one of their own.
So is it country-and-western, or country and western? I can’t think of too many acts that don’t fall neatly into one category or the other, and off the top of my head I can think of no one who exemplifies both at once. What’s the difference? Whatever differences there are between east and west, settler and explorer, traditionalist and maverick, mountain and plain, ploughed furrow and tumbleweed, family man and loner, farmer and rancher.
According to Holger Petersen, who co-produced The Gift with Peter North: ?Ian is a working rancher and cowboy who writes from experience. His lyrics and imagery of cowboy culture can be incredibly detailed and localised but at the same time are so well done they become universal in appeal.?
It’s appropriate that The Gift was recorded in various locales all over North America, because one striking thing about Tyson songs is how colossal and multi-faceted they make North America feel. The Easterner headed west for work in ?Four Strong Winds? (can a Maritimer ever hear this song without going all gooey inside?), the bronco rider in ?Someday Soon,? and the Montana artist in ?The Gift? are part of a network of archetypes holding this mythic continent together despite the best efforts of nationalists and other scoundrels.
I too wondered what all the fuss was about with Dylan, why he inspired so much fawning idolatry in music fans. He wrote some masterpieces but I thought most of his songs were as gangly and spread-out as a new colt. Ian’s songs were always tight, simple, and matched to their tunes?paragons of the craft. Ah, but the race is not to the swift . . .
These songs are all beautifully interpreted, some by those who are already icons themselves. Corb Lund is not only a cowboy songster himself but a friend of Tyson’s (I suspect it was Tyson who helped Lund see himself as more of a cowboy poet than a country crooner). And Gordon Lightfoot is to the urban hobo what Tyson is to the range rider.
Petersen says of the lineup: ?Ian has had a huge influence over many artists since his Ian and Sylvia days. Most artists were very keen to be involved and said they were honoured to be asked.?
Charles Marion Russell’s haunting drawings on the CD cover are the loop in the lasso. The title song is a tribute to Russell, an artist as true to the spirit of the Old West as Ian himself.
Once you decide to follow the artist’s path one of your goals should be to expand empathy and imagination; these are what lead to good art, or rather, to paraphrase Maritain, art that is authentic, original, and delightful. To this end it helps to immerse yourself in specific cultures and see the world from the perspectives of those within that culture. There are few cultures that have proved as inspiring and thought-provoking as that of the North American cowboy. I heartily recommend it. And this album.
The Gift: A Tribute to Ian Tyson manifests five of The Mindful Bard’s criteria for music well worth a listen: 1) it is authentic, original, and delightful; 2) it makes me want to be a better artist; 3) it gives me tools which help me be a better artist; 4) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; and 5) it provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful endeavour.