The Bill King Interview with Ian Tyson
As the recently deceased legend recounts to Bill King, Tyson wanted to be a cowboy from the get-go when as a young lad, his father took him to a rodeo, and one of the hands put him on a horse. "and I thought, this is for me. I want a purple shirt like that. It’s been good for me."
By Bill King
Ian Tyson emerged during the burgeoning ‘60s folk boom and became something of a legend. He later pivoted to creating a catalogue of cowboy songs that had the smell, the colour and the hardpan truth of life in the saddle, the badlands and riding the range. He was an original. In the past decade, Bill King had the good fortune to catch up with Tyson during one of his rare visits to Toronto.
Tyson died at his 650-acre ranch near Longview, Alberta, on December 29, 2022, at the age of 89. According to his manager Paul Mascioli, this followed several health issues, including a heart attack and open heart surgery in 2015.
Ian Tyson—A Cowboy’s Life is a Dreary Life—(May 2015)
Such is the case stated in the opening salvo—the traditional Doney Gal. Ian was recently in Toronto promoting his new side Carnero Vaquero and dropped by my Thursday morning radio show at CIUT 89.5 for a sit-down. Publicist Richard Flohil alerted me Tyson might be testy before noon, but who wouldn’t be, travelling a great distance from Alberta, far removed from the high plains and wide range.
Bill King: A cowboy life can be a dreary life.
Ian Tyson: Can be. March in Alberta—I rest my case. We had an easier winter this year, and I was feeding a lot of livestock. Went down to Santa Fe and stayed in a casita for about a month and a half. It's high at 8,000 feet and just enough winter, which I like, rather than being on the Sonora desert where you fry.
B.K: Why did you choose this life?
I.T: I took a wrong turn. It’s been interesting.
B.K: Was the cowboy thing a big part of your childhood?
I.T: Right from the beginning. My dad immigrated from Wales in 1906 to Alberta - he wanted to be a cowboy. He spent two winters in Alberta, and that fixed him. He headed to the west coast. My earliest memory is from when he took me to a rodeo that came to town with a bunch of Indian cowboys; I guess I was four or five. One put me up on his horse, and I thought; this is for me. I want a purple shirt like that. It’s been good for me.
B.K: Even at that age, you must have been gathering stories that would one day become a key part of the songwriting.
I.T: I experienced those stories. I didn’t know how to process it into an art form of any kind. I went to art school; I was a logger and rodeoed throughout there. It was great up there then. You could hitchhike with no worries about running into some perverts. I guess they were there, but we never saw them. We’d hitchhike to L.A. and back like nothing. If you didn’t like your job, which paid little but was a job, you’d hitch ten miles down the road and get another job. You could work in the bush, cowboy, work in the mines, and the pipelines.
B.K: When did you first put words to paper?
I.T: The mythology says it was Four Strong Winds in Greenwich Village in 1963. It might have been that I wrote Four Strong Winds there. I went to my manager, a great guy, Albert Grossman, on a rainy afternoon—he steered Peter, Paul and Mary and people like Bob Dylan to fame and fortune. He tried to get us ‘house broke’ and succeeded. I went over there and wrote Four Strong Winds, and it took about twenty minutes. I hadn’t used up my ammunition, so the first song was really easy. The first twenty were easy. After that, it got tougher and tougher.
B.K: I guess what had to be said was said.
I.T: Exactly. Some of those writers repeat themselves over and over, like in the movie cowboy stuff. Summer Wages is another one, probably my favourite song. It was another twenty-minute deal I wrote in Toronto walking in Rosedale. I was thinking about working the log ‘booms’ in the Fraser River, which I had done.
B.K: It’s much more colourful looking back.
I.T: You leave out the boring stuff.
B.K: Albert Grossman came from Chicago and started the club, the Gate of Horn.
I.T: He was a pivotal figure in the folk scene. Dave Van Ronk, The Greenbriar Boys, Eric Weissberg, and many good guys were there. Judy Collins—Tom Paxton. Nobody had any money, and it was great. We hung out at Gerde’s Folk City. They have now what they call ‘open mikes’ - I think back then Thursday and Monday nights, and you could get up there if you had the goods; sing and pick and whatever. You could get a record contract like that. Ian and Sylvia had one in a week. George Wein, and Albert Grossman, would be there to hear you—John Hammond got Dylan. Many people didn’t get him. I didn’t at first—I wondered who was this little jerk; who wanted to borrow my guitar; was bumming cigarettes, subway fare, bumming your couch. He recently did a press release about the early songs that affected him—the folk stuff, Big ‘Bill’ Broonzy and those guys, interesting and honest.
B.K: Your new recording is called Carnero Vaquero.
I.K: Which means ‘ram’—‘cowboy.'We had a ram on the OH Ranch just west of town killed on the highway when we were wrapping up the record. It turned out he was the biggest ram in the world. I thought that was interesting. We’d all see him when he’d come down to the highway for the salt. There seemed to be a connection there, so my driver, who also created the cover art, which I like very much, a ‘ram skull’ done by him, started a contest online to name the album. I said, ‘that ain’t gonna’ work.' He said it would, and it did, and we had seven hundred entries in the first couple of days, and it went viral or something – maybe abnormal. This girl from California said, ‘Carnero Vacquero’—I thought that was terrific. People would talk about it because they don’t know what that means.
B.K: The recording?
I.T: It’s all live off the floor in an old stone house we record, built in the last century—the last great wave of homesteaders. They were Welsh/Scots stonecutters and chiselled the fieldstones. No one knows how the damn thing stands up—it’s just sitting on the prairie.
B.K: The great studios—the classic ones you warm too, have a sound—like the old Sun Studios.
I.T: Nobody can define that.
B.K: You’ve had issues with your voice.
I.T: A wonderful surgeon operated on me in Calgary. That entire throat surgery thing has been revolutionised now because of Stephen Siddall, the surgeon from Harvard University whose innovations help them do wonderful things. I’d been to doctors who said I was done. This guy said he could help me, and I said, go for it.
B.K: The Great Speckled Bird sort of broke with tradition, grafting country, folk and electric, paving the way for contemporary country music. Am I close?
I.T: The GSB was always experimenting—the Flying Burritos—about four bands of which we were one. We never got a radio song out of it, and it fell apart, but there was some exciting music on the only recording. I didn’t know how to be a bandleader in those days. I sure learned down the road. It took me a few decades. There’s an art form of doing it. They were pretty ‘bronky,’ and it just didn’t work. The sound systems weren’t there then. I don’t know how any of those country/folk rockers got it done. It was technically demanding.
B.K: There must be music from long ago that never leaves you.
I.T: The bluegrass guys and that method. Just a microphone hanging from the ceiling—two or three guys grouped around that microphone and let it rip. That was as good or better technology than anybody had, and not hindered by drums. Drums were challenging then. The drums almost killed Vanguard Records because we recorded in a wonderful old place called the Manhattan Towers up on the west side of New York City. Those early Ian and Sylvia semi—a Capella things were done there. Then they moved the drums in, and it was a disaster. Then they went to Nashville, and drums were even new there—but at least the rockabilly guys knew what to do.
B.K: I warmed to Doney Gal.
I.T: It’s a trail driving song barely post-civil war, 1865, and this young cowboy is riding this little mare he loves and loves him, but it’s a mystery. It was Charlie Goodnight, the iconic trail man, who said, ‘boys no mares now. They’ll be fighting on the trail.' You'd put the mares in with the geldings, and there would be a hundred head. It’s a mystery why the cowboy is riding the Doney Gal, the mare.
B.K: I thought I heard a bit of Ralph and Carter Stanley in your singing on this.
I.T: I was a big fan. It’s the high lonesome sound.
B.K: It’s a sound that touches the heart in a certain way.
I.T: When I lost my voice, I didn’t think I could sing like that again, and when I could; it was like a miracle I said would not screw this up. We had one of those old radios that came to an arch point, and Roy Acuff was playing on the Grand Ole Opera - I’m guessing, in the forties. That sound blew me away and stays with me today.