Revered as an icon in folk, country and cowboy music, Ian Tyson died on Thursday, Dec. 29, at age 89 at his ranch in Alberta, Canada.
Tyson was a member of the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. He was the songwriter of the country standards “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon.”
The former was a 1965 top-10 hit for Bobby Bare. Among the hundreds of others who have recorded it are Hank Snow, The Browns, Bob Dylan, John Denver, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Chad & Jeremy, Harry Belafonte, The Carter Sisters, David Houston, the Searchers, The Seekers and Neil Young. “Four Strong Winds” is considered the unofficial anthem of Alberta and was voted by CBC Radio listeners as the greatest Canadian song of all time.
“Someday Soon” was a country single for Kathy Barnes (1976) and Moe Bandy (1982) before having its biggest success as a hit for Suzy Bogguss in 1991. Among the many others who have recorded Tyson’s classic are Skeeter Davis, Judy Lynn, Crystal Gayle, Steve Forbert, The Kingston Trio, Lynn Anderson, Chris LeDoux, Glen Campbell, Judy Collins and Tanya Tucker.
The singer-songwriter was born in Victoria, British Columbia and became a rodeo rider while still in his teens. He took up the guitar while he was recuperating from a rodeo injury. Following his recovery, he hitchhiked across the continent to settle in Toronto.
In 1959, while singing on the coffeehouse circuit there and working as a commercial artist, Tyson met Ontario singer-songwriter Sylvia Fricker. They formed the folk duo Ian & Sylvia in 1961 and were the first to record his “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon,” as well as her classic, “You Were On My Mind.”
Married in 1964, they issued a dozen albums and rose to folk stardom alongside Dylan, Baez, Collins, Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte Marie, Joni Mitchell and Peter, Paul & Mary, among many others. Tyson contributed “Play One More,” “So Much for Dreaming,” “Farewell to the North,” “I Learned From Leah” and other favorites to Ian & Sylvia’s records.
Bob Dylan recorded his song “One Single River” in 1967 during his “Basement Tapes” sessions with The Band. Others who have recorded Ian Tyson songs include Michael Martin Murphey, Don Williams, Flatt & Scruggs, Nanci Griffith, The Brothers Four, Bobby Darin, Trini Lopez, J.D. Crowe & The New South, Jonathan Edwards, The Chieftains, Tony Rice, George Hamilton IV, The Hagers, Ace Cannon, Harpers Bizarre and singing cowboy Don Edwards.
In 1968, Ian & Sylvia came to Music City to record their collection titled Nashville. It featured instrumental support by Jerry Reed, Pete Drake, Buddy Spicher, Harold Bradley, Norbert Putnam and more of Music City’s finest. Tyson produced many of the duo’s later albums, as well as most of his subsequent solo efforts.
The duo became major contributors to the country-rock movement by forming the band Great Speckled Bird in 1970. On the group’s three acclaimed albums, Tyson provided such memorable songs as “Summer Wages,” “Some Kind of Fool” and “Old Cheyenne.” In 1970-75, the couple broadcast on the Canadian TV series Nashville North, which he hosted.
He recorded a solo country album titled Ol’ Eon in 1974. Following their finale concerts and amicable divorce in 1975, both Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker Tyson pursued solo careers. So did their son, Clay Tyson (b. 1966).
Ian Tyson moved back to the Canadian West to farm, train horses and acquire a ranch. He resumed recording in 1978 with the album One Jump Ahead of the Devil, which was partly recorded in Nashville.
Old Corrals & Sagebrush (1983) was completely comprised of cowboy songs, both vintage and new. Tyson was quickly embraced by the cowboy renaissance of the early 1980s. He performed at the inaugural Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1983, and he attended most of those festivals during the next 30 years.
Now identified with western music, Ian Tyson released 15 additional collections of his cowboy songs, including 1987’s Cowboyography, which won him a Juno Award in Canada. It contained his classic “Navajo Rug,” which was also recorded by Tom Russell and Jerry Jeff Walker. Among the other Tyson solo-album highlights were I Outgrew the Wagon (1993), And Stood There Amazed (1991) and Songs From the Gravel Road (2005).
He returned to Nashville to record with producer Jim Rooney for 1994’s Eighteen Inches of Rain, with producer Steve Buckingham for 1999’s Lost Herd and with producer Harry Stinson for 2009’s Yellowhead to Yellowstone.
During this “second” career, Tyson was named Male Vocalist of the Year by the Canadian Country Music Association three times in the 1990s. His top-10 Canadian country hits are “Cowboy Pride” (1987), “Fifty Years Ago” (1988), “Springtime in Alberta” (1991), “Lights of Laramie” (1992) and “Alcohol in the Bloodstream” (1993).
He became the industry’s leading proponent of “cowboy culture” north of the border. Ian Tyson was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989. Ian & Sylvia were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and made Members of the Order of Canada two years later.
In 2007, he was saluted with the album The Gift: A Tribute to Ian Tyson. Among the artists participating were Lightfoot, Russell, Corb Lund, Chris Hillman, Jennifer Warnes, Blue Rodeo and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Tyson’s autobiography, The Long Trail: My Life in the West, was published in 2010. In 2012 came Four Strong Winds: Ian & Sylvia a book by John Einarson.
Ian Tyson had been in declining health for several years, following open-heart surgery in 2015. The family will hold a closed service and has requested privacy at this time. Donations in Tyson’s memory can be made to The Ian Tyson Legacy Fund (westernfolklife.org/donate).
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